This is a time of year when I get to hear more than usual about the struggles and joys of people who are coming into the Episcopal Church. As you may know, the feast of Saint Mark is coming up next week, April 25, and some of your fellow parishioners will be confirmed or received into the church when the Bishop visits our parish and celebrates Mass with us on that evening. What we call “Confirmation Class”—though it’s also a class for adults who hope to be baptized or who just want to spend some time learning and thinking and praying about their faith—begins in our parish in January and continues weekly into April. Every Sunday after coffee hour we have been meeting in the library over the parish hall, and we’ve talked about church history, the sacraments, the scriptures, prayer, moral decision making. Week after week, we read, talked, prayed and, I hope, deepened our sense of what it means to be part of the Church. Our last class is this afternoon. Not a class, really, it’s a rehearsal for the liturgy we’ll be participating in a week from tomorrow.
At the same time, during this same season, my other vocation is also wrapped up in bringing new people into the fold. My day job involves teaching college students, and right now we are in the middle of an elaborate process called College Admissions. You may know something about how this works, from your own experience or that of your children. Let me hasten to tell you that I went to UCLA, and I did this because it was nearby and it sounded good. It seemed hard to fill out the forms but that’s about all it took. The process my students go through to get into the college of their choice seems by comparison to be entirely overwhelming. Students—or at least students who are lucky enough to have the resources--start early, building resumes in high school, getting not only the grades and the test scores but the extracurricular experiences and skills that will ensure them admission to a great school. They tour colleges with their parents. They sort out the relative benefits of early admissions and fallback schools. They write state of the art application essays. It seems that every one of them is required to declare that they have a particular passion: for neuroscience or poetry, art history or engineering. And, aided by consultants and eager parents, they set about to match their passion with the college that will nurture it and make it grow into transferrable skills for the job market.
Once they get accepted to a few places, if they are so lucky, these high school seniors begin extensive comparisons of the options at their potential places of matriculation. They visit campus for admitted students’ weekend, where they ask all the right questions and try to feel for themselves whether the environment is congenial. Facebook pages and blogs and wikis help them communicate with one another and with students who will give them the lowdown about the colleges under consideration. Every year at this time, I get a steady stream of visitors in my classes, and I’m aware of a pressure on all of us to get the decisions right. Like all professors, I’m supposed to help my college attract the very best students. Let me say that the experience of meeting these students and working with them is as rewarding and joyful as it ever was, but I’m increasingly aware of the business of managing them into our academic environment. It’s a business undertaken with great care and ethical consideration on our campus, but it’s unmistakably business.
Why is Christianity so much simpler to fall into? In this morning’s Gospel, Jesus tells us, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.” I don’t know that any one of the people being confirmed or received this year would tell you that they had heard a voice leading them on. But according to Jesus, that’s what happened to them and to you and to me. We heard Jesus’s voice, and he knew us, and we followed. We heard a voice, we followed, but we did not know that we were being called. Yes, there is a process of preparation that the church makes available to Christians, and yes it used to be much more extended and elaborate than it is now, but I don’t think it was ever like the College Admissions Process. There was never the idea that you would match your “passion” to the perfect institution, or that you could invest in a “perfect fit” to turn yourself into the person you dreamt of becoming.
So little of what brings us here is in our control. So little of what makes faith possible is up to us. Faith itself, it seems, is being known by Jesus: not an accomplishment of our own, not something we know, not really a decision, not a plan for improving ourselves or making the world a better place. Just a response to a voice that we don’t even quite think we hear. We don’t have to write an essay about our skills or compare financial aid offers (though financial aid for Christians sounds good to me). Few of us take time to compare the fitness facilities or the food services before we embark on a life of Christian belief. We just kind of walk into a church one Sunday, or we look online and decide to visit. Or we see one of those signs on the corner: “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” Or there is a crisis that draws us in, in pain and exhaustion. Something calls us.
How can God’s plan for our salvation be such a slender thing? We are all here this morning without an admissions office or an acceptance rate. We are a flock, and we’ve flocked together through a process that may be invisible even to ourselves. Where’s the plan? Well, how’s this for a description of our admissions plan: “The growing together of Christians is the tip of the great underground structure of the universe, in which God seeks to bring all created things together in Christ, so that the harmony of the universe will reflect the eternal glory.” That’s from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and I like it. A lot.
What brought you here today, what makes us a flock, is “the tip of the great underground structure of the universe.” Your thought that this would be a good Sunday to come to Mass was a little hint from the cosmic force that is the love of Christ. Coffee hour is a vision of the harmony of the universe. Our communion is a foretaste of the heavenly banquet God has planned for all eternity.
We don’t own this or control it or think of it as an investment or a plan for self-improvement. We surrender to it. With gratitude and relief we come to realize that the Good Shepherd knows us. It’s more than knowing our passion or our skills or what’s a perfect fit for us. Our Good Shepherd knows where we come from and where we are going, and how all of creation is being reconciled. We become who we are not through a process of planning and investment, but through a surprising process of recognition and acceptance. Our perfect fit is with a God who calls us to more than we can ask or imagine, who helps us find ourselves by dying to ourselves, who shows us that we are on the best path when we know least about where we are going.
Do you have low test scores? Come on in, this is the flock for you. Are you uncertain about what you are called to do? Sounds like you are called to be one of us. Are you prone to wander? Wander over here. Our Good Shepherd has a plan for us, even when we fail at time management and skills assessment. Our Good Shepherd has raised us up in love, and that love is the force that holds all of creation together. We are made one, and that oneness is God’s gift to us. One flock, into which is gathering all creation.
Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
April 17, 2016
Saint Mark's Church Philadelphia