It's the Third Sunday after the Epiphany and also the Feast Day of the Conversion of St. Paul the Apostle.
When I was on Sabbatical two years ago, I went on a pilgrimage to view Ben Long's frescoes in churches and public spaces in North Carolina. One that was especially meaningful was the fresco at St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Wilkesboro. In it, St. Paul is experiencing the presence of Christ and is falling off his horse, his face full of surprise, wonder, and terror. This fresco was particularly significant because I was ordained priest on the Feast Day of The Conversion of St. Paul. Being a priest has been like falling off a horse, and, as I hasten to add, always being caught in the most gentle, loving arms of Jesus.
As I reflect on twenty two years of serving as a priest, I offer a portion of the sermon I preached to our people at St. Mary's:
And immediately they left their nets and followed him. (Mark 1. 18)
Whenever we talk about the Mark's account of Jesus' calling of his first disciples, the verse that launches the most lively conversation is this one: Immediately they left their nets and followed him.
Immediately? Really? Left and followed Jesus? Left everything? Without a second thought? We begin to imagine all the other relationships and responsibilities Peter and Andrew left when they followed Jesus. Immediately. How could they do that?
We wonder: what would our response have been? Would we have immediately left what we were doing and followed Jesus, if he had called us?
Twenty two years ago today, not by the sea of Galilee, but in the nave of St. Dustan’s Church, Bishop Benitez asked: My sister, do you believe that you are truly called by God and his Church to this priesthood?
And I immediately answered, I believe I am so called.
Bishop Benitez then asked: Do you now in the presence of the Church commit yourself to this trust and responsibility?
And I immediately answered, I do.
Here’s the thing: There was really no immediately to my yes to Jesus’ call. There were years and years and years of backstory to bring me to a place where I could immediately accept Jesus’ call to serve him as a priest.
I believe that there was also backstory to Peter and James and John and Andrew’s immediate yes to Jesus’ call. My personal backstory was forty years in the making. I’m not sure how old Peter and Andrew and then John and James were, but I believe that however old they were, their backstory of preparing to say yes to Jesus was however many years they’d been on the earth. Their whole life.
For me, my backstory was that I’d had parents who brought me to Sunday School and worship in the Baptist Church every week since soon after I’d been born.
I had dedicated Sunday School teachers, choir directors, and youth leaders who had taught me and modeled walking with Christ.
I’d gone to church camp. Vacation Bible School.
I had a lifetime of people known and unknown who prayed for me.
When I fell away from attending church, I had friends who invited me to come to worship with them.
After several of those invitations, I finally said yes, and ended up in the Episcopal Church.
I had church friends and priests who mentored and taught me.
Small group Bible studies that transformed my life.
Relationships through being a member of the Daughters of the King.
Books read. Retreats from Camp Allen to Pennsylvania. Graduate level classes attended.
Huge disappointments. Gifts of hope. Lots of heartache. Much love from so many people.
In truth, there was no immediately to my yes to God on January 25, 1993. There was in fact a large, rich, God-filled backstory.
I believe it was the same for Peter and James and John and Andrew. They had their own large, rich, God-filled back story of worship and study and prayer and relationships and mentors and models of a holy life.
What is your backstory?
The truth is, our lives are a series of calls from Jesus. Invitations. Biddings, Summons.
Whether we will be ready to say yes immediately to each of those calls is up to us. Because Jesus has and does and will call.
I believe that our backstories are a place in our lives where we have control over our decisions to choose to do those things, what I call spiritual practices, that enable us to be ready to say yes. Immediately.
I am particularly mindful of this intentionality of back stories and Jesus’ immediacy of call in light of an event that starts in twenty four days: The Holy Season of Lent.
The Holy Season of Lent is those forty days each year we are invited to walk with Jesus, day by day, modeling his own personal forty day walk in the wilderness. Which is what Jesus was doing immediately before he calls Peter, James, John, and Andrew.
In our Gospel we read, Immediately he, Jesus, called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. (Mark 1. 20)
Before Jesus could be ready immediately to call the disciples, he had a hand in his own personal backstory. Forty or so days being tempted by satan, with the wild beasts, and being attended by angels. (Mark 1. 12, 13)
We have the next twenty-four days to pray and ponder about the shape of our own forty day Lenten backstories. It’s about choosing intentional spiritual practices that will prepare us for whenever and however Jesus immediately calls us. Next.
As I read in the Bible about how Jesus shaped his life, those backstories will include intentional prayer, intentional worship, intentional giving of ourselves to others, and intentional giving up some concern or interest or activity to have more time for God.
I invite us all to take the next twenty-four days to ponder the creation of our own backstories for this Lent 2015.
I am mindful this day of all the people who had a place in my immediate yes to God twenty two years ago. Each who had their own intentional backstories.
What if my parents had not brought me to church and Sunday School, and had not modeled that worship and study were important by doing so themselves?
What if persons had not offered their lives as Sunday School teachers and youth leaders and choir directors and camp volunteers?
What if there hadn’t been people to support and help me during tough times in my life?
What if no one had ever invited me to come to church with them?
What if no one had welcomed us when my family got the courage to visit a church far different from our own church tradition?
What if I’d never become part of the Daughters of the King, gone to Tuesday night Bible study, been trained as a Stephen Ministry Leader?
What if my backstory had been different?
What if I’d said no to some of those important yeses?
What about you?
Our life up until today is an important and essential backstory. We have the power to make choices that will shape what will become the continuing backstory of our lives. So that when Jesus, if not beside the sea of Galilee, but while driving to work or at a swim meet or during Sunday School or while mowing the yard says, Come. Follow me.
We will be ready to immediately put down what we think is the most important in our life and say.
Yes. I do.