On the occasions in which a vow of any kind is made, there’s almost always an acknowledgement that the living of the vow will be harder than the making of it. And that we won’t be faithful to those vows if we rely only on our willpower, good intentions and strength. And that’s especially true in our faith tradition.   Recall how in Baptism and Confirmation services in which all those making their promises to God do so with that all important caveat “I will, with God’s help”. And so too in Ordination services, after those being ordained, make their vows, there is this explicit word from the presider. “May the God who has given you the will to do these things, give you the grace and the power to perform them”.  In the living of our vows, whatever they are, then there is this necessary rhythm of rededication. Not because we didn’t mean what we said the first time we said it, but that in the living of our vows, we gain a clearer understanding of what the vows entail. And we need to be reminded of what we said and why. And to pray once again for the grace and power we need to fulfill them.

I’d like to reflect with you this afternoon on the experience of living our vows. And what it’s been like for you and for me to journey on the path to which we’ve been called by God in all their varied twists and turns. And I wonder if you might recall a time, perhaps you’re in such a time now, when you seriously questioned whether you could stay on a given path.  In part because it was nothing like what you had hoped or expected, or because others upon whom your vocation depended seemed to fail you, or perhaps equally devastating, in some way you had failed yourself.   In the biblical narrative, as you know from Genesis to Revelation, there are these key moments upon which the arc of salvation rests. There is the Exodus, God’s liberation of the people from the bondage in Egypt and the covenant God made with them in the wilderness. And then follow the stories, story after story, of the people’s failure to live up to their side of the covenant.  All the times that they repent, receive forgiveness and restoration only to sin again, repent again, be restored again, and so on. And more than once in the narrative, we get the message loud and clear that God is disappointed with the Israelites and by extension, as we read along, with us.

But what about the people, you know, they were disappointed too. This relationship with God wasn’t what they had imagined. God did not conform to their image or expectations, and they were not the people they had imagined themselves to be, that they wanted to be. And so they had to learn through a long process of transformation that they were being formed into the people God was calling them to be. The story continues across biblical time and we learn vicariously through the Israelites and later through Jesus’s disciples, that disappointment and failure are as much a part of the story as God’s saving acts and the people’s heartfelt and naive promises.

And for me, one of the more poignant moments in this biblical story is, well, first the exile and then immediately after the exile. The exile, as you recall, is when the people of Israel were removed from their sacred land, carried off by their captors into Babylon, forced to live there for several generations. The experience at first was devastating. A shattering, a shattering of what they thought was true about themselves and about their God. The covenant with God was, as they thought, irreparably broken. Irreparably broken.

And yet it was in exile that the people learned that God does not abandon despite sin and failing. And that in the words of the prophet Jeremiah, “They were to seek the welfare of the city where God had sent them into exile and to pray for the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare they would find their own.”  In other words, for a season exile was their home. That was where God was calling them to be.  Now, this is a word for us to hang onto whenever we feel in a place of exile ourselves that we’re not alone.  As Jesus’ followers, we can hold onto his words that he will be with us always to the end of the age.   But for reasons beyond our knowing, we need to be where we are, even if it’s some form of exile. Now, eventually, as you know, miracle of miracles, the Israelites who had been in exile are permitted to go back to their homeland.

They can rebuild their temple. All that had been destroyed by the occupying armies. And through the wonderful prophet we’ve come to know as Second Isaiah, they’re given a new even loftier sense of their vocation as God’s people, which you heard Aaron read, that it was too light a thing that they would be their servant to raise up just the tribes of Jacob and restore only the survivors of Israel. God was going to give them as a light to the nations that God’s salvation might reach to the ends of the earth. How heady is that for the people who had been broken and shattered? So they go back and they rebuild their temple and it’s great, for a minute. Joy, yes, followed by inevitable letdown, once again. The Second Temple in no way matches their idealized memories of the past. Life is still really hard and they’re no more able to live the vows and promises they made to God in the new incarnation than their forebears were when they were sent away.

And so this longing for God that they felt to save them is still with them. And their hope that God will indeed transform life once and for all in this world becomes the messianic hope, that for those of us who follow Jesus, finds its fulfillment in him. And yet even those of us who follow him and answer the call to serve him know this same rhythm of hope and disappointment, of longing and the fulfilling of our longings for a time, only to find ourselves yet again in that death to life, to death to life, rhythm that he honored and made holy by his example.

Now I realize I’m going out on a limb here. I’m taking it on faith that I’m not the only one in this cathedral that can identify with these stories. Thank you. That little chuckle was comforting. That our lives are marked by moments of hope and resolve, followed by messiness, the messiness of life and disappointment with other people and the institutions in which we serve, and God knows, ourselves. But what I dare to believe, and I dare say you do too, and that because we’ve witnessed it, partially in our own lives and more gloriously, seemingly unequivocally, in the lives of others. That the times of disorientation, disappointment and even death are as much a part of the path to which we have been called as the more joyful clear ones when we confidently said, “Yes”.

Today is the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. 55 years ago in Memphis.  In the last years of his life, King was prone to seasons of deep inner despondency.  That even as he worked continually to be a beacon of hope to others. And as he faced head on the most intransigent forms of racism and economic injustice, increasing in-fighting and real strategic divisions among black leaders. As he faced into his physical limitations and failings, and the organizational impossibility of gathering poor people from all races into one mass movement to descend upon this capital, King said to a reporter who was questioning all of this, “This is my best and greatest offering, my hope for the country”. And when those of his inner circle questioned the wisdom of, in this moment, of him going back to Memphis to strike with the sanitation workers yet again, he replied, “Our movement lives or dies in Memphis”. And the next day it was King who died. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies”, Jesus said, “it remains just a single grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life will lose it. Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life”.

The living of our vows is messy. The late Madeline Albright, first woman Secretary of State of the United States, devout Christian herself, an active member of this diocese, she described her experience of vocation like this. “My life has felt like a jigsaw puzzle, only I was working with several pieces from several puzzles simultaneously and there was no finished picture to tell me how it should end up.” Her memoirs are so inspiring to read because in them she doesn’t make light of any of the mess, her struggle. She knows her strengths, but she acknowledges her vulnerabilities, and she always admits her mistakes. And she wrote, “Lives are necessarily untidy and uneven. It is important, however, to have some guiding light.”

So we are here to remember our guiding light and to hear God’s reassurance that when it feels as if we’ve lost our way and in when in fact we have, that the star, the shining star, is still there. Seasoned seafarers will tell us that there’s a lot of changing course when navigating by the stars, and when the sky goes dark as it sometimes does. If you are in the middle of an ocean, you can’t exactly stop and turn around.  And that’s when in darkness we have to rely on our instincts and our previously known vantage points until the sky’s clear and we can see again.

There’s another line in the gospel text worthy of our meditation this week as we consider all the varied vows and efforts we’ve made to live them. I think it’s John’s version of the prayer Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. You know, you remember in the garden, “Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me. But but your will, not mine be done.”  Jesus in solidarity with our raw humanity when we just asked to be spared.  John’s version said in another place, “Jesus prays, “My heart is troubled. And what should I say, Father, spare me from this hour? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.”  Consider the possibility that it isn’t possible for you to be spared the living of this hour. For in it there is purpose and possibility beyond your understanding. And dare to trust that even when your guiding light is hidden under clouds and you stumble and what you imagine doesn’t come to pass in the way you hope, it is for this, that you are here.

Okay, one final short vignette. This is from, I love this story. It’s from our younger son Patrick, who was a theater major in college, which raised some eyebrows among the well-meaning adults in his life. And one set of friends, really good friends, one’s a lawyer, one’s a financial planner, was at dinner with him one night.  And they said, “well, you know, Patrick, so you know, what’s your plan B?” And Patrick at the age of 19, he said, “You know, I don’t quite think of it that way. I’m gonna walk this path as far as it’ll take me. And if it changes along the way, well that will be my new plan A.”

Which is a 19 year old’s way of saying that God has a way of making a way out of no way for all of us. And while the journey of a vowed life cannot be predicted, it can be trusted. Not because of our brilliance and strength. The apostle Paul is pretty clear about that.  But because of the one who called us.  So that when we lay this life down, friends, when we lay this life down, we will be able to answer the question that the poet Raymond Carver asked in his very brief poem, Late Fragment. And the question is this, “And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?”  Even so. Did you get what you wanted from this vocation, even so?  “I did” The poet responds, “And what did you want?  To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.” So stay strong friends, you are beloved. In you God is well pleased. You are on your path and it is, for whatever it is that is before you right now, that you have come to this hour.   And look at all the cool people that you’re here with. Just sayin’.  Amen.


The Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde

Bishop of Washington