Today is the first Sunday after the announcement that I have accepted the call to serve as the dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, Texas. Below is today’s homily. I have been blessed to serve among such faithful people at St. John’s. My love for this parish and her people is deep and abiding.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday I saw the new Stephen Spielberg film, Lincoln. If you’ve not yet seen it, change your Sunday afternoon plans and go to the movies. Lincoln is a most remarkable film. Daniel Day Lewis, arguably the most versatile actor working today, utterly transforms himself into the sixteenth President of the United States. Using written descriptions from the nineteenth century, Lewis mimics Lincoln’s high tenor voice. He slouches as if under the weight of Lincoln’s considerable height, and he incessantly tells stories to the captive audiences around him, as the real Lincoln supposedly did. Most importantly, Lewis’ Lincoln conveys the President’s internal struggle with decisions that result in the deaths of thousands and the heavy heart of grief he bears in consequence. In Spielberg’s film, Lincoln steps off his marble seat and becomes a real person. By film’s end, when John Wilkes Booth’s bullet inevitably finds its mark, we love Lincoln the way citizens a century and a half ago loved him, and we grieve his loss.
The best scene in the film occurs late at night between Lincoln and two young military engineers who’ve been assigned telegraph duty. Alone with these two other souls in a large and empty office, the President struggles aloud with a crucial decision. Rebel peace emissaries from Richmond are making their way toward Washington, D.C. If Lincoln allows them to arrive, the Civil War could reach a negotiated end. But in that case, all hope of the Congress preemptively adopting the thirteenth amendment abolishing slavery will be lost. If Lincoln delays the emissaries, the amendment will pass and slavery will be no more, but the war will drag on. Many will be freed, but many others will die on the battlefield.
Lincoln dictates his telegram and then pauses, reconsidering his decision. Then, apropos of nothing, he begins talking to the young engineers about the ancient mathematician Euclid. The President speaks of mathematical truth and the way Euclid’s axioms are written into the very fabric of reality. They are not created; they are not invented; they simply are. And then Abraham Lincoln, sitting slouched in a chair with a blanket draped over his shoulders to guard against the chill, asks, “Do we choose to be born, or are we fitted to the times we’re born into?”
He is asking a question about Providence, about God’s timing and our own nature as instruments of God’s purpose in the world. He is asking the young, wide-eyed engineers whether his—Lincoln’s—presence in that age, in that room, at the cusp of that hugely weighty decision, is chance and happenstance, or whether it has been written into the fabric of the world, like Euclid’s theorems, that the threads of God’s purpose would come together just so to bring that weary man to that basement, on that night, in that moment.
Our Gospel reading today addresses Lincoln’s question. On this second Sunday of Advent, we hear again the story of John the Baptist crying out to us from the wilderness. But Luke, in a manner quite unlike Matthew and Mark, goes out of his way to establish minutely the exact timing of John’s emergence and proclamation. Our Gospel reading today begins:
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high-priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
Not the year before, not the following season, not in a neighboring country, and not someone else. At that moment, in that place, and for that purpose, God called John the Baptist forth. Only then do we hear John’s words, “Prepare the Way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”
Luke is, among the biblical writers, the most brilliant storyteller. By his manner of storytelling, Luke stresses the particularity of John’s proclamation to us. We, in our own times and places and especially in this Advent season, are to seek where and how we are called to prepare the Way of the Lord. We are to discern how, in both our hearts and in our worlds, we are to make the paths of God straight.
As those who have engaged our program theme this year are discovering, we are each so called particularly. Whether we are the President of the United States or the commonest of men, God calls us in our contexts, in particular ways and to specific things in his service. And this is is how I come to the news today that I must leave you. I am no Abraham Lincoln, and the decision with which lately I have been faced doesn’t make the difference between slavery and war. But trust me when I say to you I have found myself awake in the middle of the night, sometimes sitting alone with a blanket against the chill, asking Lincoln’s question, and pondering John’s command: In what way is God fitting me to this time? How am I called to prepare God’s Way? These are Advent questions—questions of anticipation and expectation for what God may do—and this season, in conversation and prayer with God and with fellow Christians whose wisdom I trust, the answer that has come to me is that God is calling me to Christ Church Cathedral in Houston, the parish of my grandfather and, as it turns out, the parish in which Bishop William Marmion was raised.
God does not compel this decision. God never compels, and God never coerces. Such things are not in the nature of love, and God is love. We choose to listen for God’s will, or not. We elect to cooperate with God’s call upon our lives, or not. But when we do not, we cut off specific avenues of grace. Surely, God then presents other avenues, but when we deny God’s calling something is diminished in us. Being who God creates us to be and doing what God creates us to do depends upon our discerning hearts and our willingness to follow where God beckons. I have said this to innumerable ones of you on countless occasions, and I would be a sorry priest if I did not follow this counsel in my own walk of faith.
This Advent, then, also becomes a particular moment in your history, the long and storied and grace-filled history of St. John’s Church, when you must ask how you are fitted for this time, when you must ask what it means now for you to prepare the Way of the Lord in this place. You are healthy; you are faithful; you are the embodiment of God’s beloved community. God has profoundly good things in store for you. You are the best people I know, and God loves you more than you can ask or imagine.
In the meantime, we have two more months together. We will celebrate the turning of the calendar, the Epiphany, and the Baptism of our Lord. We will pray and laugh and maybe cry a little, but mostly we will thank God for fitting us to this time together for the past five years.
Some months ago I preached a sermon in which I discussed how difficult it is to write the last words of a homily. The last words, I shared, are the hardest, because the last words are the ones that matter. The last words are the ones that linger in the mind and attach themselves to the heart. I found the composition of the last words today to be impossible. I don’t know how adequately to say what you mean to me and how grace-filled these five years have been. And then I read St. Paul’s prayer for the Philippians, which is our first reading today. Wonder of wonders! God provides the words when we have no words. So let me claim St. Paul’s prayer as my own prayer for you:
“I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you, because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me…. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.” Amen.