The process of discerning a call to ordained ministry is messy. Every diocese has different requirements, timelines, and processes. Every person has a different life story, a different calling, and a different spiritual life. Meshing these together can be difficult, especially for those pursuing a call to the priesthood and studying in a residential seminary environment. At VTS back in the mid-aughts, it seemed the only thing that all of us had in common was the requirement to do one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education. I spent the summer between my first and second years as a chaplaincy intern at Goodwin House in Alexandria. Goodwin House is a tiered care retirement facility owned by the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. At the time, it had two locations, both of which offered independent living apartments, assisted living, skilled care, and memory units. I got all kinds of experience. Our CPE Supervisor was a retired Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel turned Episcopal priest named Ruth Walsh. I’ve thought a lot about Ruth over the past week or so as she died of COVID-19 complications on January 21st.
As you might imagine, given her resume, Ruth was a no-nonsense kind of person. As a CPE supervisor, she was kind, but direct. She said what needed to be said. I remember one time, she asked me flat out, “Steve, do you think you’re better than the rest of your colleagues?” I learned to check my attitude that day. Ruth was also deeply spiritual, and wanted the same for us. Once a week, she would lead us through an hour-long guided meditation. I’ve always struggled to drown out the monkey chatter in my mind while meditating, but there is one session I still remember quite vividly. We were on the roof-top patio one warm, summer afternoon, gathered as a group on the outdoor couches, Ruth asked us to close our eyes, become aware of our breath, and find a happy place. I found myself beside a lake, watching the water ripple along the shoreline, when she invited us to imagine Jesus standing right in front of us. I’m not sure why, but the Jesus I saw was just his face, kind of like the image imprinted on the Shroud of Turin. I think the strangeness of Jesus’ appearance is part of why I remember this meditation so vividly. Anyway, from there, Ruth invited us to spend forty-five minutes talking with Jesus, sharing our hopes and our fears, listening, as we were able, to words of encouragement, grace, and love. It was one of the deepest experiences of prayer I’ve ever had. As our time ended, I felt refreshed and empowered to finish that difficult summer in CPE.
I think about that experience often. How wonderful it was to have a sit down with Jesus. I think about how much easier life would be if Jesus were here among us to teach us, by his example, how to live into the way of love. In fact, this week, in particular, I found myself getting jealous of the congregation gathered at the Synagogue in Capernaum who got to see and hear for themselves the Good News of God’s salvation live and in the flesh. They certainly didn’t show up that Saturday expecting to meet the Holy One of God, but they sure picked a good day to go to services.
A small fishing village of about fifteen hundred residents, Capernaum will play a prominent role as the center of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, and it all started right here, as Jesus, Andrew, Peter, James, and John entered the Synagogue one Saturday. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a visiting rabbi to be invited to speak. Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus taught, but in other Gospels we hear about him proclaiming freedom to captives, sight to the blind, and the year of the Lord’s favor. We know he often called on his listeners to repent and believe the Good News that the Kingdom of God had come near. It wasn’t the content of his teaching, however, that got the congregation’s attention this day. Instead, they were enamored by how he taught, as one with authority, unlike the scribes.
Jesus taught of God’s love, not as one who had studied it, but one who lived it. Jesus didn’t teach as a smug, know it all, who told people how to live their lives the right way. Instead, Jesus taught as one who cared deeply about the people who heard him. He taught as one who felt a responsibility for helping others to understand God’s love for them, and to help them see that that love was meant to be shared. His authority was based in compassion, not power; in grace, not judgment; in love, not strength. Human beings aren’t accustomed to that kind of authority, so it is no wonder the congregation was astounded.
In the Greek, Mark says that the crowd was ekplesso, a compound word, that literally means “to be blown away.” That’s where my jealously sets in, and maybe yours does as well. We are blessed with some pretty good preachers here at Christ Church, but none of us is Jesus. We can share from our experience of God’s grace and love, but none of us is the human embodiment of it. You might be blown away by my rhetorical skill and humility, but it is impossible for anyone to teach with the same kind of authority as Jesus. Gosh it would be nice if Jesus were here, right now, so that we too might be able to be blown away by his authoritative teaching on God’s love, but of course, he isn’t here, and we, like generations of disciples who have come before us, have to find ways to experience that grace and love for ourselves so that we too might be able to share it, with some level of authority, with those around us.
This is, I think, the fundamental task of discipleship, seeking ways to experience God’s love so that others can experience it for themselves. How we do that, when we aren’t the Son of God incarnate, requires effort. In the seemingly never-ending days of COVID-tide, it probably even requires extra effort. The Season of Epiphany, however, is the time we set aside to specifically look for the ways God is at work in the world in Christ, through the Holy Spirit. In our Eucharistic Prayer C, would that we could pray it, we would ask to have our eyes open that we might see God’s hand at work in the world around us.
Allow me, then, if you will, to invite you to close your eyes for just a moment. Notice your breath. Be aware as you breathe in deeply… And out… In… and out…
Think back over the course of this week.
Look around where you’ve been.
Listen again to the words you’ve heard.
Where did you see God?
Did you have the opportunity to be blown away by God’ love?
Did you take the chance to share God’s love with someone?
In… and out… In… and out…