What does Jesus have to say about it?
By Neil Raman
I don’t know about you, but when I'm faced with a big choice, something like: discerning a vocation, choosing a seminary, looking at field education sites, or finding a placement, my mind tends to cast it in life or death terms. The choice is elevated to some sort of cosmic level. As if my entire life depends on the choice I am about to make. All of a sudden it seems like the most important thing in the world.
“Don’t get it wrong”,
“This decision has consequences”,
“Everything is on the line.”
But it isn’t. These choices aren’t even usually the “choose life and you will live” kind of choices. In fact they are not even on the same order of magnitude as the choices that the Israelites are being exhorted to contemplate as they move into the Promised Land, but they sure feel like it.
The people of Israel knew a thing or two about making choices and how challenging it can be. When we meet them they have had 40 years of practice, getting things both right and wrong. We find Moses giving his final exhortation to Israel before they enter the Promised Land without him. Its a kind of final pep talk to the people he loves so much before they head out on their own. He gives them a preview of choices to come: “I put before you 'life and death,' 'prosperity and adversity,' 'blessings and curses.' 'Choose life and you will live.'” No pressure.
Some time ago, my friend Scott was making yet another retreat at Little Portion friary as part of his discernment for monastic orders. Scott is the logical type, he likes making lists of pros and cons and being rational about his choices. After two days living and praying with the friars he had finally come to a decision. He was going to talk to the head of the house about joining the order. But first he wanted to let Dunstan know. Brother Dunstan was an 85-year-old Franciscan who had been in the order since his early 20s. Scott had known him for years and years and very much valued his opinion. He walked out the door of the friary and down the steps to inform Br. Dunstan. He found him in the garden working with the flowers. He knelt down in the dirt next to him and told him excitedly about his decision. Dunstan just kept on working.
After an uncomfortably long period of silence and without looking up from the flowerbed the reply came: “That’s nice. Have you talked to Him about this?” Scott replied: “The head of the house, no I haven’t yet. I was planning on doing that later today.” Dunstan let out an exasperated sigh, put down his trowel looked up at Scott and said: “No, No! Not him! Have you talked to Jesus about it?” Scott replied, “Oh, yeah… I should probably do that…”
It can be overwhelming. There’s just so much to do so much to think about. So many questions that need answering. But the question keeps coming back: “What does Jesus have to say about it?”
As disciples of Jesus we are called back again and again to the call: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me…” We are called back to this ever so simple, yet all so difficult, call to die each and every day, to pick up the cross, however heavy it may be, and go wherever Jesus may lead. It’s a scary thing. We tend to be attached to our lives, our communities, our dreams for the future. Instead of being allowed to sit in that place we like so much we are called to leave the comfortable worn in set of identities and to deny ourselves; to die to the people we were, the people we are, and the people we think, and maybe even hope to become, in order to be formed into the people that Jesus is calling us to be. The process is as surely painful as it is transformative.
Yet in that pain, in that self-denial, in the splintered heavy wood of the cross, there is joy. There is the joy of a life renewed, the joy of finding a new kind of community. A community that is filled with people picking up their own crosses each day. Communities filled with people who are doing crazy things for the sake of the Gospel because they talked to Jesus about it—like Little Portion friary, the many Episcopal Service Corps sites, and even this community here at the School of Theology. Communities where people have taken the call to deny themselves and follow Jesus quite literally, by uprooting their lives and taking a step into the unknown, communities where the bonds of fellowship and affection run deep. It can be seen around a fire pit on a warm Spring night, in breaking bread at one another’s homes, and in strange quirky humor that would make little sense elsewhere. In these communities formed out of self-denial and the cross can be found a foretaste of that heavenly community that we all hope to be a part of one day.
It can be overwhelming. Papers, sermons, tests, commissions, committees, applications, financial aid, “where am I going to live?” These questions and worries can take up so much of our time and our effort that one day we wake up and our gaze is no longer set towards the New Jerusalem, towards the cross, towards Jesus. We forget who we are and why we are doing what we are doing. We forget to ask Jesus for his input. We forget about picking up our cross each and every day.
But these are not the only things that can overwhelm us. Theologian David Ford has shown that we can be overwhelmed by far more than the intricacies, questions, and anxieties of daily life. The love of God and a life filled with the Holy Spirit can be as overwhelming as any question or anxiety, far more so in fact. We can be overwhelmed by the love of Jesus and by that peace which passes all understanding. We've all met people like that, people in whom the face of Christ is as clear as the stars on a crisp winters night. People in whom the joy, and peace, and love of God overflows so much that it is apparent to anyone around them. The kind of people that make you stop and say, "Wow! What have they got that I don't?"
Nothing, except, maybe that when they need to make a decision they "talk to Jesus about it" and then listen to the response.
—This sermon was delivered on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday 2015 by Neil Raman, T’16, in the School of Theology’s Chapel of the Apostles for the Come & See visitation weekend.
About the Author
Neil Raman, T'16, is an M.Div student from the Diocese of Long Island. Prior to coming to Sewanee, he lived in community at St. Hilda's House in New Haven, Conn., an Episcopal Service Corps site. He holds a degree in mathematics from the University of Chicago. In his free time he enjoys reading and playing the double bass.
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