Keep Listening – January 14, 2018
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Once upon a time, at least forty-five years ago, a young man heard a call from God and endeavored to do his best to listen and respond to the call he had received. Like Samuel, this young man had older role models, themselves pursuing the call of God in their own ways, who helped him understand and interpret his call—including an uncle who was a Roman Catholic priest—and like Samuel, this young man only grasped the exact nature of what he was hearing gradually, over time: raised a Roman Catholic, he followed God first into the Orthodox Church, where he was ordained a priest, and then, after twenty years of faithful service there, he sensed God was calling him somewhere new and became an Episcopalian.
When he arrived at St. Paul’s on the Green a little under twenty-five years ago, Nicholas Lang was still a young man, and he encountered a church that had its own charm, but wasn’t the thriving, vibrant parish it had once been and is now again. Regular Sunday attendance had dwindled to a few dozen, the parish was wracked by infighting, and buildings, including this one, were literally falling apart. The financial conditions could not have been good. “How long can we go on like this?” folks might have asked. “Can anything good come from this place?”
Nicholas knew he was facing a challenge. Still, he believed in the promise of his new home. Slowly but deliberately, Nicholas worked day by day, month by month, year after year, to stabilize and breathe new life into St. Paul’s. Another kind of priest might have kept his eye on the door, waiting for the right time to cut and run to somewhere safer and more secure. But Nicholas persisted, hopeful that a new kind of future could take shape on this corner of the Norwalk Green. This priest had faith.
A key moment in Nicholas’ tenure at St. Paul’s came when he attended a “Doing Church Differently” conference at St. Bart’s in Manhattan. It was there that Nicholas first encountered some of the ideas that would really turn St. Paul’s around. Foremost among them was “Radical Welcome”—an approach to church membership and programming that prioritizes loving and extravagant inclusion above everything else and contrasts with the harsh and rigid judgmentalism that still characterizes so much of religion. In embracing and beginning to enact a “Radical Welcome to All,” Nicholas and the rest of the St. Paul’s community were making a statement that those dismissed and shunned by others would be welcomed and valued here. Over the past decade and a half, this vision of Radical Welcome, complemented by a reinvigorated musical and liturgical life, not only has increased attendance at St. Paul’s and expanded the resources available for its ministries, but also has ensured that more people experience the healing joys of a genuinely inclusive community and hear the message that God loves them—no matter what.
Today we rejoice in God because Nicholas first heard that call so many years ago, because Nicholas has continued to hear that call in different ways over the past forty-five years, and because Nicholas’ call eventually brought him here, where he transformed this community and all of us. And yet we know that Nicholas is not the only person called by God. Martin Luther famously referred to a “priesthood of all believers,” borrowing on the first letter of Peter’s assertion that we—all of us Christians—are a “chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people,” charged to “proclaim the mighty acts of [the One] who called [us] out of darkness into his marvelous light.” We, too, are priests, not just those of us who put a plastic collar on in the morning, but all of us who worship God and claim that Jesus makes a difference. God is also calling us, seeking us out in the night, eager for us to say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”
We follow God’s call when we think on whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, whatever is excellent, whatever is worthy of praise. We follow God’s call when we keep doing the things we learned and received and heard and seen in Nicholas, when we radically welcome everyone to God’s table without exception, when we dream together a bold future we cannot know for sure and yet work tirelessly towards, when we pursue excellence and splendor in all that we do. And we follow God’s call not just when we make this campus a little bit of heaven on earth, but also when we go out into our neighborhoods and streets to find others who need what happens here and invite them to come and see.
Nathanael was initially skeptical when Philip told him about this Jesus of Nazareth—“can anything good come from Nazareth?”—but Philip convinced him to put aside his cynicism for a moment and give this Jesus a chance. Upon witnessing Jesus and experiencing his powers, Nathanael was astounded—“Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”—yet Jesus assured him that he would “see greater things than these.” We are so happy for you, Nicholas, on this the forty-fifth anniversary of your ordination to the priesthood, and we are in awe of where your journey has led you and how it has so deeply affected us. But we also know that the journey isn’t over yet, that God is continuing to call you and continuing to call all of us to even greater things ahead. Let’s keep listening.