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Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mom always liked you best

A Sermon intended to be preached (but snowed out) for
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

There’s probably no one in this congregation who remembers The Smothers Brothers. You’re all way too young to remember their television show in the mid to late 60s and 70s.  Not to worry. You can catch some of the funny bits on YouTube.

If you were all just a little bit older, you’d recall the appeal of these two who performed folk songs (Tommy on acoustic guitar and Dick on string base) which usually led to arguments between the two. Tommy acted “slow” and Dick, the straight man, acted “superior”. 

Tommy’s signature line was “Mom always liked you best.”

I always loved it when Tommy would yell, “Mom always like you best.” And Dick would yell back, “Lower your voice!” And Tommy would say in a deep voice, “Mom always liked you best.” 

Every couple of years, when this Gospel story from Luke appears in our lectionary, I wonder about the relationship between Jesus and his cousin John.

And, every now and again, I hear John say, “…. But one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals . . .” and I recall the Smother’s Brothers and I think, well, Jesus and John are definitely not the Smothers Brothers.

What’s most amazing to me is that Jesus presents himself to be baptized by John. Consider that Jesus, as we say every week in the Creed, is “eternally begotten of the Father” and we not only believed he was “conceived without sin,” we say in the Gloria, he “takes away the sin of the world.” 

It’s really quite remarkable that he humbled himself to be just like every other sinful human being and is baptized.

After he and everyone who had gathered there had been baptized, Luke tells us that “the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

I suppose that John could have said to Jesus, “God always liked you best!” and be found innocent by a jury of his peers.

As I considered all of this, I began thinking about the power of identity, the power of affirmation, and the power of vocation. The more I thought about it, the more I thought that this is a powerful message for you, not only as individuals but as a congregation about to enter the search process for your next rector.

Let me do that by telling you the story of a middle-aged woman I saw privately in pastoral counseling. After 6 months of dancing around the subject, she finally blurted out one afternoon that she thought she might – possibly, I don’t know, what do you think, could I – have a vocation to ordination as a priest, but, well, oh, no, how could THAT be? I mean, she said, she was stupid.

Everybody knew – everyone in her family, everyone at school – had told her in direct and indirect was that she was a very stupid woman. In no way could she POSSIBLY withstand the rigors of seminary.

After we talked for awhile, I encouraged her to test that assumption and be tested - to do the same vocational testing the diocese would ask her to do as an aspirant. After some prodding, she did.

When all the testing was done and she had her appointment to hear the results, the woman at the Testing Facility told her that all the vocational profiles were consistent with a vocation of service but they had one problem - one of the tests wasn't accurate enough to measure accurately, so they were going to send it to another facility to be evaluated.

"Which one is that," she asked,

"Your IQ."

"Oh, right," she said, almost in tears. “Probably can't measure something that low."

“Actually,” said the woman, “we can’t accurately measure your IQ because it’s too high for our measurement instruments.”

“Too high? Did you say ‘too high’?,” asked my thoroughly astonished friend. “What are you trying to say to me?”

“I’m saying to you that your IQ is at genius level. You, my dear, are quite brilliant.”

At which point, my friend started crying in disbelief. Turns out, she had a pretty severe case of dyslexia which no one had ever diagnosed.

As she told me the story I asked her how she felt about all of that information. What did she make of it all?

She said, “I don’t know. I mean, I’m not sure. Do you think it means that I AM called to ordained ministry? That I CAN go to seminary and not make a fool of myself?”

“Well,” said I, “I’ve always found that surprise and delight is one of the most effective communication tools God uses to open our hearts and minds to possibility.”

That was in the late 90s. She's an amazing priest – and an incredible preacher – today. As I think about it, she’s probably rounding the corner to retirement just about now.

The power of identity.  The power of affirmation. The power of vocation.

We see it in the story of the Baptism of Jesus. We see it in the story of my friend, struggling with her vocation which was so influenced by who she thought she was and what she had been told of her intellect and capabilities. 

We’ve all heard the saying that “The truth will set you free.”  I think it’s humbling to accept the truth about yourself – especially when the truth about you comes as a surprise and that surprise is that you are much better than you thought you are.

In that moment of facing and accepting the truth, it’s as if we are rising through the swirling waters of uncertainty to hear God say to us, “This is my beloved child.”

Some refer to this process as “Baptism by fire.” In my experience, that’s an apt description.

Fire and Water and Spirit. 

Identity and Affirmation and Vocation.

As you begin to enter the search process for your next rector, I urge you to keep this story of the Baptism of Jesus in mind.

Let your search begin with yourselves – as individuals and as a congregation, a community of faith.

Search what is it that makes you, you. What makes you unique? What have you absorbed as truth that others have told you about yourself? Is it true?

If there’s something you’ve always believed about yourself that is holding you back from what you feel called to do, test it. Put it to the test. How else will you know if it’s true?

Search for surprises and let those surprises be an affirmation of what you have learned about yourself. You may be surprised that the assumptions you’ve always held, once challenged, open doors you never knew existed.

If you find yourself scratching your head and asking, "What am I supposed to make of this?" Or, "What am I supposed to do now?" Those are the questions which almost always lead to vocation. 

Know that  those questions are calling you into co-creative status with God - to make something, to do something together with God.

With this information in hand, begin the process of fearlessly searching your vocation. What is it that you were called here – in this time and in this place, together with these people – to do?

After that search process, you will be better equipped to search for your new rector.

Remember, you are calling a rector, not a savior. 

You already have a savior. 

You are calling a rector – the person who can come here and know who your are and affirm that identity and love you enough to  help you be faithful to your vocation, to what God is calling you to do and be; to that vision God has of who you are and what God needs you to accomplish in this time and this place.

Mind you, this is not easy work. It’s difficult. It’s especially hard to test your assumptions. It’s humbling accept the surprising truth about yourself that you are better than you thought you were.   

In those moments, remember that you were blessed to be a blessing. You are baptized.

In those moments, hear God say to you, “You are my beloved child. With you I am well pleased.”

Or, if you prefer, “God always liked you best!”



Grace-WorkinProgress said...

This is very inspiring. I am at a place in my life where I feel ready to focus on more than just my work and even inject a different level to my work that will give me joy. I can feel a change in my heart to live deliberately instead of in defense.

I have been successful in my life but had to overcome the label of "not smart" too and a lot of other things. You have to really sift through those thoughts in your head to see who they really belong to and decide if they are worth keeping.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

You are absolutely right, Grace. That 'sifting' is a very spiritual process. Some call it "discernment". It's not easy but it's deeply rewarding and it can be transformative.