Presiding Bishop's Sermon at St. Paul's Cathedral, San Diego, CA
When I was here in California last weekend, I saw an article in a local paper about tomato farmers deciding not to plant their fields with that labor-intensive crop this year. Those farmers are desperately aware of how difficult it is to find enough workers to harvest their crops, and theyâre not going to gamble on something that needs to be hand-picked. Those central valley fields are going to be ripe for harvest this year, but probably with something that needs little human participation â wheat, or barley, or maybe sugar beets. Somehow not as interesting as tomatoes or strawberries or wine grapes.
My time in San Joaquin brought other reminders. I heard repeated laments â deep and painful laments â about churches being closed in the last few years, buildings sold, and clergy shut out, all on the justification that there is not enough need, or because the community there is no longer self-sufficient. I did, however, see and hear abundant need for the proclamation of good news and evidence that itâs going on. Hundreds of people gathered for that reorganizing convention, giving voice and physical evidence of their investment. My question as I looked around was, âhow will they serve the coming generations?â â the seed already planted in the ground and the fields that will ripen in years and decades to come.
You and I are here today because we give some evidence of answering like Samuel, âhere am I, for you called me.â I had to preach my very first sermon on that reading, the same weekend as Martin Luther Kingâs birthday, and days before this nation went to war in the Gulf the first time. It had taken me five years to hear that voice calling, but that weekend finally let me answer as Samuel did. How did you first hear that invitation?
There was a wonderful article about vocation and ministry in the late February issue of Christian Century. Lillian Daniel tells her story of growing up in Asia in the 1960s and 70s while her father covered the war in southeast Asia. She and her family attended a dozen or so Anglican churches in those years, and she talks about the comfort she knew in the consistency of worship in all those different countries, âas familiar as the lukewarm tea and sandwiches with the crusts cut offâ that were served after church. She returned to this country for high school, and went off to college determined to prepare herself for a massively lucrative career in international finance. Until she took a course in the history of religions. She graduated as a religious studies major, formed in a social justice milieu, and found herself with a vague sense that the next step was going to divinity school. Some not very friendly priest told her that summer that sheâd missed a step â consulting with the Church about this decision. So she called up Yale and put off her enrollment.
Her discernment process in the Church didnât go so well. The committee was pretty blunt with her. âYou have no discernible gifts for the ministry. You give no evidence of interest in sacramental ministry. Youâre immature and you have authority issues.â She was with it enough to ask if they had any other ideas, and the head of the committee was surprisingly direct: âgo get some experience of the world, work for a nonprofit, get an MBA so you can serve the church as a lay leader committed to social justice.â
She listened, and went to work for a nonprofit serving homeless and at-risk teenagers. Her co-workers, when they finally heard her story, told her maybe she was in the wrong church, and that they did see a vocation to ordained ministry. Well, Lillian did go off to Yale, and was ordained, as a UCC pastor. She tells a remarkably gracious story about her journey: âGradually I came to know this: the Episcopalians were not wrong. Their ordination process actually worked. I wasnât called to ordination in that tradition, and they saw that when I could not. I was immature. I do have issues with authority and obedience. I choke in hierarchies and thrive in independence. I love to preach long sermons and I hate homilies. I would have made a lousy Episcopal priest. But I was richly blessed by the Episcopal Church.â
In Godâs economy â or Godâs agronomy â nothing is wasted or lost. The fields are ripe for harvest, and it takes harvesters, and planters and waterers, of all sorts and conditions. I was absolutely delighted to read Lillianâs account of a savvy discernment committee chair 20 or more years ago who understood that ordained ministry is not the only vocation in the church.
All of us in this Church are leaders by virtue of our baptism. We are called to serve Godâs dream of a restored and reconciled creation. We work out our own part in serving that dream in a variety of ways, each important and vital, and none more so than another. Martin Luther Kingâs part in that dream had much to do with an equal valuing of all members of this human race, and it had much to do with an end to war. Forty years after he was murdered for those dreams, we are still at war, and we are still a long way from full and equal dignity for all. We will have ungrown and unharvested tomatoes here in California this year because we donât have the will as a nation to work out a fair and just immigration policy. That lack of will has a lot to do with fear, and the erroneous belief that some of us can be safe and secure when others are not.
Jesusâ compassion for the harassed and helpless sheep is supposed to be what motivates us to get out there and work for a bountiful harvest. Matthew mixes those metaphors liberally, but if youâve ever seen a flock of ewes and new lambs in a grass field in the early spring, it fits â the green field turns white, at least in patches, as the sheep stand with their backs to the wind or flee together before a stray dog.
Pastor Lillian Daniel closes her article with a reminder about those sheep and absent shepherds. She says that the Episcopal priest from her high school parish âcalls me periodically to check in on me, to see what I am up to. I count it as precious whenever he seeks me out. It is as if I am the one sheep he does not let get away.â
Every person on this globe needs a shepherd like that. It neednât be a priest, just someone who shares the dream of God.
 Lillian Daniel, âCall Waiting.â Christian Century 16 February 2008, 30-35