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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost — August 23, 2015

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
. Amen.

In eighth grade, after several years of pouring over liturgical books and playing church, I came to the conclusion that I was going to become a priest. When I shared this revelation with my school chaplain, however, she cautioned me not to jump the gun and assured me that I had time. “When I was thinking about ordination,” she told me, “the best advice that I was given was that one should only pursue this vocation if it is the only thing one can do.” She encouraged me to make sure before committing that I could spend my life in no other way.

To the best of my abilities, I followed her suggestion. For periods of time, I imagined myself as a church musician, as a journalist, as a teacher, as an academic, as a psychotherapist. But, as those dreams waxed and waned, one vision of myself stood steadfast. I was convinced that I was meant to be a priest—to preach, to celebrate the sacraments, to wear the collar, to shake hands at the door. Or at least I was until I reached my last year of college. By March of that year, I had already received approval in the first stage of the ordination process and had already been admitted to my seminary of choice. Everything was working out, and I was achieving all that I had ever hoped for. And for some reason I immediately panicked. The priesthood, I suddenly decided, was not for me.

You’re not even a nice person, I told myself. What makes you think you have what it takes to help people? Won’t you get tired of reading the same readings and singing the same hymns week after week, year after year? Won’t you get bored? At my rawest and most emotional moments, I even questioned my motivations and my sincerity. Are you doing all of this just to make a statement—just to seem different? I asked myself. Why else would you forfeit so many other possibilities? I went so far as to wonder if I even believed in God.

The summer between college and seminary, I began to look for jobs wherever I could—to find anything to do besides commence my priestly formation. I formulated ways I could explain my sudden departure from my intended plans. I sent my resume to friends and solicited their advice. I begged my mother to ask for favors from her well-positioned colleagues. All of that tireless effort resulted in precisely one telephone interview—with a consulting firm for a job that had a description I didn’t even understand. I took the call while on a short break from my summer work, which ironically involved introducing high school students to the value of a seminary education.

Over the course of the conversation, it became obvious that my interests and skills were not exactly well matched to the position I was being interviewed for. It finally occurred to me that there was no universe in which my extensive experience in churches and choirs could easily translate into success in fields outside those realms. I had to admit that my opportunities beyond the church were, by necessity, limited. Realizing this was initially depressing and disappointing, but eventually comforting and even liberating, especially as I continued to put my energy into the summer camp happening around me. The truth was that I liked this work. Whatever my flaws, whatever my limitations, whatever my doubts, I wasn’t meant to become a consultant or a lawyer or a banker or a journalist. I was meant to sing hymns, to pray prayers, to wear a collar. Only the priesthood could sustain my life; only the priesthood could give me the excitement and purpose I so desired. I was meant to be in church—and there was nowhere else for me to go.

When Jesus asks Peter if he and the Twelve will go away as previous disciples did, Peter doesn’t respond by pointing to the Twelve’s religious devotion or by asserting how much they love and cherish Jesus as a friend. Instead, Peter’s response is that they have nowhere else to go. Only Jesus connects them with the source of all goodness. Only Jesus has the words of eternal life. Only Jesus is the Holy One of God. Peter and his fellow disciples have no choice.

Our culture, on the contrary, is used to choice. If you’re at all like me, you like to examine all your options before picking the best one. You won’t even think about going to a new doctor or hair salon without asking for recommendations first. You read reviews before going to see a movie or trying out a new restaurant to make sure you won’t be wasting your time. You spend more time debating where to go on vacation than you actually spend on the vacation itself. You take choices, like the choice Joshua gives the Israelites to serve the Lord or not, for granted. You certainly aren’t accustomed to resigning yourself to one option simply because there aren’t any others.

The scary thing about surrendering to inevitability—about resigning yourself to the only realistic option—is that doing so requires admitting how little control we typically have. It means acknowledging that external circumstances dictate a large portion of our present reality and our future fate. We may perceive ourselves to be the Israelites, faced with a clear choice between the Lord and the other gods, but, at the end of the day, most of us are like Peter, staying where we are because, in truth, there is nowhere else for us to go. Even the Israelites’ agency is limited. “Far be it from us,” they shout in response to Joshua’s invitation to them to choose between the Lord and the others, “that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.” Once the Israelites considered who God was and everything God had done for them, it seems, they didn’t really have much of a choice at all.

Recognizing the limitations of our ability to choose can be disillusioning, but it can also be reassuring. Choice, after all, can be awfully paralyzing, and an excess of choice can lead to problematic decision-making and overwhelming anxiety. Knowing that God is with you always can stem your worries about making the wrong choice and deviating forever from the right path. Sometimes the future we fear and dread surprises us with the joys and wonders it brings: when I experienced cold feet three summers ago, I had no idea how rich, meaningful and worthwhile every minute of work within this special community would be. Little did I, knee-deep in resistance, know how much I would truly and deeply love everything about my job. If God is the destination of every journey—the person to whom we always go—there are no black holes, no dead ends, no outcomes from which we can never recover. God remains with you wherever you go and whatever you do, whatever disasters befall you and whatever mistakes you make. Perhaps the disciples who abandoned Jesus and even Judas, who so defiantly betrayed him, somehow remain within God’s ultimate, all-loving care. Perhaps there really is nowhere else to go but God.

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