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Dewitt Jones is an award-winning photographer whose work has appeared in National Geographic Magazine for decades. He is also a film maker and a motivational speaker. In one of his films, Everyday Creativity, Jones describes his process of crafting pictures – how he has honed his technique so that he is able to execute in that split second when the shot is right, how to put himself in the right place at the right time, and how to be open to new and unexpected possibilities. In one story, he talks about how he was setting up a shot of fishermen on a trout stream in Scotland at dawn. Time was obviously of the essence – the light was changing second by second, the mist on the water was dissipating, and he was clicking away, recording shot after shot, shots that were good, fine, beautiful, even, but not great. But suddenly, he says, he heard a voice in his head say, Turn around, Dewitt – and when he did, he found himself staring at a river set afire by the sunrise – bright oranges and deep reds with the mist swirling up like flame and the trees on the bank beautiful in bold silhouette. He quickly spun himself around, got into position, and found his great shot.
I watched this little inspirational film recently at a conference for clergy wellness called CREDO. CREDO is sponsored by the Church Pension Group and is a time offered to clergy of The Episcopal Church to take some time away from their lives to reflect on their spiritual, vocational, financial, and physical health. We leave the conference with a set of goals for our lives – new dreams and ways of being that God is calling us to and some practical steps we might take to live those goals. We also leave CREDO with a ton of swag – I came home with a CREDO mug, bag, flashlight, bookmark, antibacterial spray, and, I kid you not, my very own CREDO rock. So it’s no wonder that in an atmosphere marked by such bodacious branding, Jones’s “Turn around, Dewitt” became a bit of a catchphrase. Turn around, Dewitt. Not sure where God is calling you? Turn around, Dewitt. Unsure of how to position yourself financially in the world? Turn around, Dewitt. Of course, clergy being who we are, it also became a bit of a joke – someone’s waiting behind you for that first, life-saving cup of coffee? Turn around, Dewitt. You forgot something in your cabin on the other side of the conference site? Turn around, Dewitt became as much about a life-changing moment of revelation as a light-hearted reminder to check and see if there might be something else interesting behind you.
Turn, then, and live, the prophet Ezekiel tells us. He is speaking to a crowd of Israelites who have not only fallen away from following their God and turned to sin, they have also had the guts to complain to God about the repercussions of their loose living. The way of the Lord is unfair, they keep grumbling. We want to live the way we feel like, and we don’t want God to have anything to do with it – nothing to do with our decision-making, nothing to do with our feelings, and certainly nothing to do with the sour grapes we have to eat when we live in ways that are not according to his will. Forget his will, they say – forget his wrath, his forgiveness, his justice, and his mercy. We want what we want, and if we can’t get it, it just isn’t fair.
But, even in the midst of all of this whining, Ezekiel comes to them and brings them words of God’s absolute, unflappable love. I will judge you, God says. But I still have hope for you – hope that you will repent of your sin, hope that you will get for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit, and that you’ll make new decisions. Even with your hard hearts, even with your eyes fixed firmly away from me, I have hope. “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God.” So live – come back to me, and live. Turn around, Dewitt.
I’m guessing that this idea of repentance as a turning around isn’t a new one for most of you. You’ve all heard sermons aplenty about how the word used in scripture for repent literally means to turn back – to spin about, to face in the right direction. Sometimes this repentance is an abrupt about-face – we stop walking down a particular path, turn completely around and begin to retrace our steps to God. Sometimes this turning around is a complete 180-degree spin, a turn from evil to good, from sin to obedient discipleship. I will turn away from my wickedness and do what is lawful and right. I will not, the first son answers his father, but then he changes his mind, turns, and goes. Turn around, all the way around, Dewitt.
We’ll see this kind of a turn in a few moments when we move into the baptism portion of this liturgy. As the parents and godparents come together in the West end of the church with Augustus, Father Mullen will ask them a series of six questions. First, as they face out West door of the church, there are three renunciations – do you renounce evil in all of its cosmic, global, and personal forms. And we will hear three times, “I renounce them, I renounce them, I renounce them.” And then we will watch as Augustus and parents and godparents literally turn about – spin in a circle to face the East end of the church – the place of the rising Son, the place where we do what he asked us to do in remembrance of him. And the first question Father Mullen will ask them is this: “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior.” And the answer is, of course, I do – because they already have. They have already turned around, enacted true repentance, showed us in the actions of this liturgy what God longs for us to do in our lives. Stop facing that way, stop facing away, turn around, Dewitt, and look at me.
But sometimes Turn around, Dewitt, is far less dramatic. Sometimes that turning is just a few steps in this direction, or a turn or two this way. Dewitt Jones wasn’t turning from something bleak and awful to something wondrously good – his first shots were actually pretty decent. But when he turned, he found his camera suddenly lit up with life, his heart radiant and full. He found joy, and the reassurance of the hope of his calling. He found God at work in him, enabling him to work for his good pleasure.
Turn, then, and live, isn’t just a call for us when we are living in the pit. Turn, then, and live, isn’t just intended for us when we are outright denying God and ourselves as God’s beloved, called children. Turn, then, and live, isn’t just about avoiding death – it is also about fully living life, about having life and having it abundantly. Turn, then, and live is also about Turn around, Dewitt – turning from something fine, okay…good, even, to something remarkable, something ordained, a gift, grace, poured out from God upon our little heads. Turn around, Dewitt, is sometimes about taking small turns, making little adjustments in our daily life and practices, in our prayer and in our speech, so that we find ourselves in the right place at the right time to receive all the beauty that God has to offer us.
So wherever you are in your life, turn around, Dewitt. God is always calling you into a deeper relationship with him. God is always pulling you into greater alignment with his purposes and plans for you. And God is giving you the strength and the courage, poured out upon you in your baptisms, remembered for you each time you come to this altar, to hear his voice and to follow him. So repent, spin about, turn around, Dewitt, and live.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
28 September 2014
Saint Mark's, Philadelphia