Sermon at the Episcopal Church at Yale
Let these words be more than words, and give us the Spirit of Jesus.
It’s a joy to be with you today, here at The Episcopal Church at Yale. I work in The Episcopal Church’s church-wide office of Young Adult and Campus Ministries, and easily the best moments of my job come when I get to visit churches and campus ministries. Know also that I come with the prayers and well wishes of Episcopal campus ministries across the country. Over the past months you have been thought of and prayed for by your fellow college students, by chaplaincies around the church, by Episcopalians all over the country. Know that I come representing your church family and I come with prayers.
I’m grateful to be here, but I wish I had checked the readings before I accepted Paul’s invitation to preach. Wow. Tonight we have Moses and the Golden Calf and Jesus and the king’s spurned wedding invitations. Lack of gratitude, idolatry. These are difficult lessons. They seem like difficult teachings, because they are readings full of divine frustration.
Beneath the layers of frustration, there is an invitation, a glimmer of God's hope for us. Frustration is real, frustration is important. I live in the city of St. Louis and at the moment I can tell you there is a great deal of righteous frustration in that city. I was marching yesterday morning through the streets with young women and men from Ferguson and with clergy from across the country. Frustration can be righteous, but it is, in the end, frustrating, difficult. These readings are frustrating. They’re not easy. At the heart of the divine frustration in these readings is an invitation.
I worked in Washington DC as a priest, but also as a community organizer. My training in organizing was at least as important as seminary. In that training, they spoke about frustration, they spoke about a tension that people of faith know well. The frustrating tension is this. We live knowing that the “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” We know that well in St. Louis. You know that at Yale. The “world as it is” is not “the world as it should be.” We live in the tension, and tonight, we’re invited by readings full of divine frustration to see the kernel under all that caked on frustration, to see the invitation of God to God’s people at the heart of these difficult readings.
The invitation is most plain in Paul's letter. In the midst of all this frustration we find St. Paul talking about gentleness and joy. And we can catch that God's frustration is really, deeply, an invitation to be gentle with ourselves with others and with our world. Gods invitation is to find joy in our lives, and to inspire joy in others.
David Foster Wallace, the late author and post-modern literary critic, gave a famous commencement address at Kenyon College a few years ago. Commencement addresses are full of advice for graduates, and Foster Wallace gave advice reluctantly. He was a postmodern, and postmoderns do everything reluctantly. Here’s part of his address, try to hear it with that Golden Calf in mind:
“here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.
Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid,a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they’re evil or sinful, it’s that they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”
Jesus, Exodus, and David Foster Wallace all tell us that, unconsciously, we don’t allow God to be God. Our society shapes us to grasp after wealth, or power, or beauty. We spend a lot of energy, a lot of mental processing, a lot of anxiety, seeking status. We end up in the wrong clothes at the banquet. Have you ever had that anxiety dream of showing up with the wrong clothes, or no clothes? We strive to achieve some image of success, and we end up balls of anxiety. But I imagine you don’t need me to tell you that, you are surrounded by anxious people all of the time. You are surrounded by Yale.
And Yale needs you. Let me say that again. Yale needs you. Yale needs your gentleness. Yale needs your joy. Yale needs you to worship, to fill this space with beautiful music and liturgy. Facing the mesmerizing quests for status, power, image, wealth, Yale needs community that knows how lay all of those destructive pursuits aside. Your classmates need you. Your professors need you. The cleaning staff and the lunch room workers need you. They need your graciousness. They need your prayers and thanksgiving. They need your gentleness. And sometimes, sometimes, the Yale community needs you to put on your wedding garments and have a good time, and to convince your roommate to put down the economics textbook and to rejoice as well.
This chaplaincy has been through a great deal in the past few months, a lot of painful and public transition. Keep transitioning. Do the work of grief. Paul is here to help with that grief work. And get to the joy. Paul is here to help with the joy work as well. If we learn anything from these difficult readings, it is the character of a healthy community of faith is a community where joy can be found, where laughter and celebration can be found, where gentleness can be found. Get there. Bring others. Get to the joy. Get to the gentleness.
Because this is the invitation at the heart of the Gospel, the Good news of God in Christ. The invitation is to set down the exhausting pursuits that our world gives us. The invitation is to delight in the wedding banquet surrounding us each day. The invitation is an invitation to see the world around us as it really is, to allow the world to shape us, to be gentle with the world.
One of the best expressions of that invitation I’ve heard, came from a friend participating in one of the Episcopal Church’s programs for young adults. See, cards on the table, I’m here with a bit of an agenda. I would love to tell you about a program. At dinner we are going to talk about some of the concrete programs that The Episcopal Church offers for you. One of the programs, YASC, the Young Adult Service Corps invites young adults to spend a year abroad, to give a year of their life away, in service to others with our partners throughout the Anglican Communion. A good friend of mine, Lyra Harris wrote letters home about her experiences working in Honduras with YASC. One of her first letter caught the invitation we hear in today’s readings:
“As much as I am tempted to narrate the experiences I know I will fall short. It is impossible to describe the amount of beauty and sorrow, the feelings of being alive in the world, letting the world touch you and mold you. Being open to it all. So, I will continue to write hopefully interesting letters, but you too can do this! Just stand in the rain in the middle of a thunderstorm, or learn another language, or watch a sunset from the top of a mountain, or read psalm 16, or talk to someone you normally wouldn’t, or swim in the ocean, or get swept up by a crowd and dance in the street.”
I think Lyra caught the sense the invitation. Whether you find your joy and gentleness in the slums of San Pedro Sula Honduras, or in the Sterling library, find it. Find your gentleness. Find your joy. In your relationships, even the unlikely relationships, the people you’re not likely to engage in conversation, work to find the nerve to say hello. Work to understand what brings your neighbors joy. Work to treat others with gentleness. That is the invitation at the heart of the Gospel. Sometimes the invitation comes caked with these difficult and frustrating lessons. Sometimes the good news can be hard to discern, but it is there. God is there, in the midst of it all, inviting us all to the banquet. And God relies on us, to bring joy and gentleness to our church, to our neighbors, to Yale, and to our world.