One of the things I love about being an Episcopalian is the opportunity to pray prayers that have been prayed by the faithful for more than a thousand years. Some of the words we pray go back as far as the 6th century. Some, based in Scripture, go back to the days of St. Paul. Of course, there are also wonderful prayers that are newer than that. With every new edition of the Book of Common Prayer, we get new authors writing new prayers for the faithful to lift to God. This morning’s collect is one of those prayers. Written by the Rev. Dr. Massey H. Shepherd, JR. for the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the collect for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany is a prayer that focuses on the call to ministry for every baptized Christian.
Call is a funny thing, however. As the world has focused more and more on specialization, the basic Christian call has been moved away from the baptismal font and toward ordination. Those who are discerning ordained ministry are said to be “discerning a call,” and the process will invite them to repeat, ad nauseam, the story of “their call.” This happens to the detriment of the Church, however. The more we associate our clergy with some kind of special calling, the more we take away from the laity and their distinct calling as baptized members of the Body of Christ.
So, this morning, we pray in the words of the late, Dr. Shepherd, that God might give us the grace required to “answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ.” This is a fine thing to pray for, but I can’t help but wonder if we understand what the call of our Savior really is? To what is Jesus calling us? Based on our collect and the Gospel lesson, I think there are three parts of the call every Christian receives from Jesus.
First, the call to repentance. “Jesus began to proclaim, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’” This is the core message of Jesus. However, repentance is a tremendously bad translation for what Jesus is calling us to in the Gospel. Repent comes to us from Latin. It is the prefix “re” which means “again” and the word “poenitire” which means “to make sorry.” Repentance, then, means to “be sorry again,” or as we commonly think of it in modern theology, “to be grieved over past sins and to seek forgiveness.”
The Greek word that is repeatedly translated as “repent” is metanoia, which has nothing to do with “making sorry,” but rather it is all about changing your mind or to reconsider your choices. Jesus isn’t calling us to feel sorry and to beat ourselves up for our past actions, though confessing them and being forgiven is important. Rather, Jesus calls us to a future in which we live with changed hearts and minds. A future in which we don’t live based on our selfish desires, but for the kingdom of heaven, where God’s will is done; where the hungry are fed, the naked are clothed, and the oppressed are set free.
That’s the first call, to repent. Secondly, Jesus calls on his disciples to follow him. For Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John, this call was literal. Jesus invited them to drop their nets, leave their old lives behind, and to follow him around the Galilean countryside as he proclaimed the good news, healed the sick, and cast out demons. We too are called to follow Jesus, though in a more metaphorical sense. We follow the teachings of Jesus, or at least that is the calling we are trying to live into. We strive to follow the beatitudes and be peacemakers, who hunger and thirst for righteousness. We strive to follow Jesus’ parables and to look for the pearl of great price that comes from living our lives like Jesus lived his; loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.
First, we repent. Second, we follow. Finally, then, as we prayed in the collect this morning, we are called to “proclaim to all people the Good News of Salvation in Jesus Christ.” This is, no doubt, the most difficult of the three callings. The first two aren’t easy by any means, but they tend to be more internal work, things we might be able to do without anyone really noticing. “Proclaiming to all people the Good News” is going to get noticed, and it might make us Episcopalians feel downright uncomfortable, but it is part of the baptismal call. In the Baptismal Covenant, we vow that with God’s help, we will proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. In our Catechism, it teaches the ministry of the laity is to represent Christ and the Church and to bear witness to Christ wherever they may be. Further, it states that it is the duty of all Christians to, among other things, work for the spread of the kingdom of God.
I know what you are thinking. “I’m not equipped to do one or more of these callings.” I get it. I’ve been there. Many times. I told this story from the pulpit back in January of 2020, but many of you weren’t members here back then, and since COVID took away our collective memories, I think I’m safe telling it again. It happened at my first ever continuing education event way back in November of 2008. I attended a conference put on by the United Methodist Church called “Worship in a Postmodern Accent.” It really was a fantastic conference, filled with impactful alternative worship experiences, lectures by some of the most creative minds in worship planning, and good fellowship with people, some whom I still have contact with through social media. For all the good that week had to offer, I also still remember the overwhelming feeling of inadequacy that threatened to swallow me whole.
In November of 2008, I had been a priest for half a minute. I was twenty-eight years old, and still not sure what this life of ordained ministry would really look like. There I was, mixing it up with some of most imaginative and talented people in their field, and I began to wonder, “Do I even belong?” It all came to a head on the second day, in some non-descript hotel meeting room, at three o’clock in the afternoon. The organizers had set up a labyrinth experience unlike anything I’ve ever seen. A dozen or so prayer stations had transformed a room with loud carpet and foldable walls into a sanctuary. There was a working television at one station, a sand box at another, and various light displays. It all led to the center where they had somehow created a flowing river in this hotel ballroom. As I took in what was happening in that space, a little voice crept into my head and said, over and over again, “You’ll never be this creative. Give it up. Why waste your time?” Still, I plodded through the labyrinth. In the middle, at the bank of the manmade river, we were supposed to write down our fears on a piece of paper, and I kid you not, fold it into an origami boat, to float down the river. This really happened. By that point, I knew my fear all too well. I was afraid I wasn’t enough. I was afraid that I would never be enough. Not just to create some crazy alternative worship service someday, but that I’d never be enough to be a good priest. I grabbed a pen from the cup and began to write. A few letters in, the pen dried up. Of course, it did. I couldn’t even do that right. I looked down in exasperation at the pen in my hand and noticed that it wasn’t your typical gray Bic that you can buy a dime a dozen. It was a promotional pen, not for the United Methodist Church, but for God. It simply said, “God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called.”
We are each called by God to repent, to follow Jesus, and to proclaim the Good News, and God knows we can’t do any of it on our own. As life unfolds, and fears of inadequacy creep up, God is always ready to equip us with what we need to once again repent, follow Jesus, and proclaim the Good News. As we embark on another year of ministry, may God give us grace and equip us with what we need to answer readily our call as a community of disciples here at Christ Episcopal Church. Amen.