When I was in seminary, our dean, the Very Rev. Cecil Woods, among his many other duties, had the specific responsibility and authority to question a student’s vocation to the ordained ministry by suggesting that this was not the will of God, but rather that God’s perfect will for him or her was in some other vocation as a devoted disciple of Christ rather than that of a deacon, priest or bishop.
When Dean Wood’s secretary scheduled such an appointment, word of the pending interview, despite the effort by the administration to protect every student’s privacy, word would often leak out, if not before the fateful hour, then certainly afterwards.
We even learned to joke about the statement that Dean Woods would make as his opening move to help discern the student’s faithful path forward, whether to ordained ministry or some other calling. He would begin, “Fred, you don’t seem happy here.” The dean’s assertion would then prompt a response from the student that continue a discussion aimed at determining what God’s will for Fred was, whether to reaffirm his call and to renew his commitment to his seminary education, or to begin to explore other options of what life might look like, to discover he might be much happier doing something else, something he may not have even considered from his limited perspective rather than from God’s superior point of view.
This process of discernment is what Paul is referring to when he tells the Philippians to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in us, in every disciple of Christ and in every congregation of Christians, enabling us both to will and to work for God’s good pleasure. Knowing that God is at work in us, both to will and to work for his good pleasure, is profoundly reassuring to anyone who sincerely wants to please God, whatever God’s perfect will for him or her or his church may be.
This is true even if we’re a tax collector or a prostitute. Or even for those Jesus was speaking to in today’s gospel who are often the last, but not necessarily the least, to admit that they’re not really happy either: the scribes and Pharisees, who at least enjoyed some measure of social standing and respectability in the world.
The reason that tax collectors and prostitutes go into the kingdom of God ahead of everyone else is because they are more likely to admit to Jesus, the Dean of God’s Kingdom, that they aren’t happy when Jesus schedules his own encounter and interview with them through the inevitable and miserable consequences of the choices they have made outside God’s perfect will for them.
Yesterday we hosted the celebration and blessing of the marriage of Michael Franklin and Maggie Nelson who have been worshipping faithfully with us over the past year or so. We prayed for them just as we do for every couple who wants God to work for his good pleasure in their common life together as husband and wife.
One of those prayers reminds us how we can remain happy together, whether as husband and wife, or as Paul applies it to us as brothers and sisters in the life of Christ’s Body, the Church:
“Grant that their wills,” we pray, “the wills of Michael and Maggie, may be so knit together in your will, God, and their spirits in your spirit, that they may grow in love and peace with you and one another all the days of their life.” If we want to live happily ever after, we will want to do as God wants us to do. Otherwise, the knitting of our common life will snag, or get tied up in knots, or completely unravel.
Paul is explaining that if the church is the Body of Christ, and Christ is the Head of the Body, then Christ will be of one mind and one will in his love for all the members of his Body, and the members of his Body, in turn, will seek the one perfect will of Christ for them as they look to the interests of the other members of the Body.
Although our vestry is not bound by a policy that every decision they make must be unanimous, the will to reach consensus is nonetheless what we all strive for precisely because we want to know the will of God and we believe that God is not double-minded, ambivalent or crazy, but one who will give us the strength to accomplish his will so that we might please him and one another, just as the husband and wife who put the interests of God for their marriage ahead of their own are actually advancing their own interests as well, even if that means that one spouse or another must from time to time surrender his or her own will to God’s, trusting that God’s will will not only please God but each spouse as well, even though each spouse may have thought that his or her own will would initially be in the best interest of everyone.
I find this willingness to surrender our natural inclinations to God’s wiser counsels to be especially true in our relationship to material possessions. God invites us repeatedly to believe his promises and to accept his invitations to act in ways that are often contrary to our normal human instincts for survival and self-preservation, our own programs for happiness, as Father Keating calls them, for security, power and self-esteem.
In today’s bulletin you will find a sheet that includes four passages that might challenge your beliefs about what will make you happy and how to find the happiness that we all seek. I hope you will join me after church at one of the tables in the parish hall and take a few minutes to reflect on those passages as you enjoy breakfast or coffee hour with a few of your fellow parishioners and a member of the vestry who will lead the discussion. Or if you can’t stay, please jot down your responses to the questions and drop them into the black box on the usher seat as you leave. You don’t have to include your name unless you want to. If we have room in our bulletin insert next week, we might share some of your responses as an encouragement to us all.
There’s a Shaker song that expresses Ezekiel’s promise of a new heart and a new spirit to those who, with fear and trembling, work out their salvation with the Dean of Heaven, who wants even more than we do to be truly happy, whether it’s in relation to our money, our spouses, our church or in any other dimension of our lives. It goes:
“‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free, ‘tis the gift to come down where we ought to be, and when we find ourselves in the place just right, ‘twill be in the valley of love and delight. When true simplicity is gained to bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed, to turn, turn, will be our delight till by turning, turning we come round right.”
God told Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of anyone. Turn, then, and live.”
I won’t be going to my fortieth-class reunion at seminary later this month, but I pray that everyone of my classmates discovered and honored, sometimes with the help of Dean Woods and always with the help of the Dean of Heaven, their true vocation and the happiness that comes in serving the Dean who first served us by taking the form of a slave, being obedient, even unto death on the cross. AMEN.