(Note: This is a sermon I preached at St. Matthew’s Westerville, my “home away from home” parish on Sunday, 6/11/17.)
If you look in your service bulletin you will see that I am listed as the homilist today and that I am a seminarian. For those of you whom I have not met before, my name is Jean Cotting, and I will be beginning my seminary studies in another month or so at Virginia Theological Seminary. Officially I’m out of the parish St. James in Clintonville, a few miles south of here. A little over a year ago I started showing up here and getting involved in various ministries at St. Matthew’s just because much of what this congregation does is so different from traditional church. Rather than telling me to scram, get lost, and run along home back to my own parish, Fr. Joe made me your treasurer, so I’ve been involved with that and also Pub Theology. It’s been an incredible learning opportunity, and for that I thank you.
My official canonical standing in the church right now is “postulant for Holy Orders.” I love saying that. It sounds so important. But basically all it means is that I’ve passed the diocesan screening process and the bishop has tentatively decided, “Yeah, she might make a decent priest someday,” and so I’ve been granted me permission to attend seminary as someone who is on the ordination track. Not everyone who attends seminary is necessarily looking to become a priest, but those of us who do wish to become priests eventually have to have a bishop’s permission first before we start seminary. As impressive as the title “postulant for Holy Orders” sounds though it does not guarantee you the opportunity to preach during Sunday liturgy, and when a priest allows a postulant to preach, they are doing them a HUGE favor out of the goodness of the hearts, so first off, a very big Thank You to Fr. Joe for allowing me to reflect on the sacred text with you today.
HAPPY TRINITY SUNDAY!!!!
Today, the first Sunday following Pentecost, we celebrate the mystery of the Holy Trinity – the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We have Thomas a Beckett (who has been in the news lately) to thank for the institution of this feast day. It is the anniversary of his being consecrated Archbishop of Canterbury, after which he declared that the day would henceforward be marked as a day to honor the most Blessed Trinity. However, if you came here today expecting me to explain this mystery of the Trinity, I’m sorry to say that you will walk away disappointed because that is WAY above my pay-grade. For those of us who are postulants or seminarians, it’s very popular day to get asked to preach because none of the real clergy want to preach on the topic of the Trinity. There simply is no good way to explain how something can be both one and three at the same time. And generally when people try to get too clever and attempt to fully explain it, they slip into heresy. The idea of a triune God – one God in three persons – is, of course, a mystery. There are a number of metaphors floating around that have been put forth by great theological thinkers through the ages – St. Patrick and his three leaf clover; St. Augustine and the idea that God is love and in order for love to exist there needs to be a Lover, a Beloved, and the Love between them. These images are quite useful in engaging our imaginations in trying to get our head around the incomprehensible. We can’t reach an understanding of the Trinity with our human intellects but we can stretch and grow through the process of trying to understand what we can. Because even though the Trinity is something that we can never fully understand doesn’t mean that we can’t ponder it and consider what this mystery tells us about the nature of God.
I think one of the significant clues to the mystery of the Trinity that we might want to consider lies in our first reading from Genesis on the sixth day when God created humanity:
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness;
He says “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness”
God is speaking of himself in the plural. God himself exists in community, just as we do. God, like us, experiences his divine existence in relationship. Now, I don’t presume to state that the divine relationship is anything at all like our human relationships or that it’s a relationship we can comprehend but the divine being is in relationship and in community. I think maybe, just possibly, that human relationship and human community, as messy and as imperfect as they are perhaps are one of the ways in which we bear the imprint of our Creator. Based on my own experience it is through relationship with one another and through community that we humans are often able to experience the divine presence.
Getting back to what I was telling you about becoming a postulant. The whole screening process I alluded to earlier is referred to as discernment and one of the key features of discernment is that it is most definitely not something one can do in isolation. First of all, it’s just too big a major life decision to base solely on one’s own opinion and attempting to figure out if God is calling you to something is a process that you need to have the input of others. For me, anyway, it started out as a very simple matter. It consisted of: a) I have an interest in becoming a priest, and, b) I think I have the requisite skill set to do the job. For those who might be interested, the diocese looks at three specific criteria – theologian, entrepreneur, and faith community organizer. But if it just starts and stops there – then that’s all it is: an interest and a skill set. The sense of “call,” for me anyway, didn’t come until I got immersed in the experience of working through the questions with others. First it’s just you and your parish priest for the first year, and basically the job of the priest in that first year is to try to talk you out of becoming a priest (obviously mine failed miserably). Then as you start getting ready to apply with the diocese, if you’re r as lucky as I was, you start taking on an increased role as lay leader and liturgical “helper” and so others in your community become aware of what you’re doing and where you’re headed. Then you apply with the diocese and start working with what’s called the Commission on Ministry, and subsequently a Regional Discernment Committee is formed to focus on you specifically, and of course along the way there is a psychological screening, and a physical, and a background check and at some point you start working with a spiritual director if you don’t already have one. So long before you ever sit down with the Bishop face to face (the ultimate decision is always up to the bishop), you’ve worked with an entire battalion of people who have questioned you, challenged you, aggravated and affirmed you. There is a lot of time spent in private prayer and contemplation as an individual; I don’t mean to sell that component short. Those quiet moments of simply talking to God and trying to listen for God’s voice is critical. It is important, but it’s only one piece of it. Because it’s that whole process of communal dialogue – articulating what you as the individual are feeling, thinking, and experiencing from your interior perspective, and bouncing it off these other people, and them responding and telling you what they are feeling, thinking, and experiencing what’s coming from you – that’s what gets you there. And it was through that cycle repeated over and over during the 2 years of discernment, that gave me a sense of truly believing that the priesthood is where God is calling me to.
I still remember vividly the moment I had my “call.” I had gone on a one woman retreat to the convent in Glendale and I woke up around 4:00 AM. I couldn’t fall back asleep but I wasn’t feeling sufficiently motivated to get out of bed. And so I lay there thinking about all that was going on. I had gone on retreat because I was wrapping up my work with my Regional Discernment Committee and I needed some intense quiet time to digest and process what that was all about. So as I lay there I re-ran some of the conversations in mind, and decided it was borderline semi-miraculous. Now, the thing you need to understand is that I’m an ENTJ on Myers-Briggs, so I am not by nature a patient person. I am not by nature somebody who copes well with having other people tell me what to do. I like being in control and I tend to have some very strong opinions about how the world should be. I don’t like getting bogged down by distractions, and working with committees as we all know is spectacularly distracting. And yet, I was doing okay. I was not just getting through it but to a large extent, I was enjoying it. I was growing from it. I was able to suppress my inner Hermione Granger and let go of my need to be right all the time. I was most definitely challenged, but in a good way. I wasn’t handling it perfectly, not by a long shot, but it was going far better than I had thought it would. And this was because it wasn’t just me. I wasn’t doing this on my own. There was something far bigger, far more powerful than I could ever hope to be. I was being drawn through this experience unseen forces. And I said to myself, “Holy Cow! I really am being ‘called.’ This is where I’m meant to go. God IS calling me.” Actually it was more than just being called. I was being hauled off body and soul by God. It was a Jonah experience and I was about to be regurgitated by a giant fish on the shores of Ninevah. And then my very next thought was “Girlfriend, don’t get too full of yourself. Just about everyone God called in scripture was a bit of nut job and loser.” But my point is this, my “call” came not through a burning bush or a mystical vision. It came through the voices of others, of those around me. It came from relationship and being in community.
Okay, you’re saying to yourselves “That’s a nice story, but what does that have to do with us?” I’m sharing this experience with you because discernment is process that all baptized Christians are called to engage it – to figure out where God is calling you. It is something the individual needs to engage in and it’s something communities as whole engage in. It’s something right now that here at St. Matthew’s is going to be a very central theme over the next few years as all of you figure out which direction that your community needs to go in and how you’re going to get there. And it will be a journey that, like mine, will require a lot prayer and soul searching for you as individuals but it will also require a great deal of community conversation and relationship and not just for those of us here present. Just as I needed the input of other people from close friends, people from home parish and also from total strangers that I had never met before to help me figure things out, you too will need to reach out to and reflect with one another and also those in the wider community to find out who you are as a faith community and what they are seeing and experiencing from you.
So, let me return to the Gospel reading because this ties in to what I’m talking about. In this final concluding chapter of Matthew, the text tells us that the eleven remaining disciples have gone out to Galilee to worship Jesus, but then it says that “some doubted.” It doesn’t name names, but it says “some” which to me means that there was more than one doubter. However, Jesus’ response is quite striking. He comes to them. He doesn’t chastise them or go away in huff. No, he comes to them. He meets them where they are and in spite of their doubt, he tells them where he wants them go and what he wants them to do. Actually, he doesn’t say anything about the doubt and I don’t think it’s because he’s simply choosing to ignore it. I think it’s because he know that for his disciples the doubt is part of the journey. Doubt is an incredibly wonderful gift. Doubt is really just another blessing in disguise and we need not be afraid of it. I can only speak from my own experience but if I hadn’t had any doubts along the way on my journey, I doubt that I would have continued on. Because I think it’s only by having doubts and working through them that I could come to believe for myself that it all wasn’t just some crazy pipedream. To me doubts are the confirmation that what you are doing is anchored in some sense of reality and that you’re not just off in some fantasyland. And doubts most of all are something we engage in and can best be addressed in community and in relationship. As you journey as a community – embrace your doubts, work through them, wrestle with them, pray over them, talk and talk and talk about your doubts, and then pray some more and talk some more. Debate your doubts, aggravate each other with your doubts, get on each other’s nerves: doubt, question, argue, communicate and commune. I can assure that just as Jesus did not revoke his 11 followers’ license to be apostles or take away their commission to go and make disciples of all the world, the Trinity will not pull out on St. Matthews. He will come to us. He will meet us where we are and he will send us forth out into the world – not in spite of our doubts but because of them. We are not alone. We have one another; we are in relationship; we are in community, and therefore, we also have God.
Thank you for listening.
(Note to readers: If you have enjoyed reading this and would like to support me in my journey, please pray for me. If you are so blessed to have the means to do so and would like to contribute financially to my seminary fund, you can do so through my GoFundMe.com campaign “Jean’s Awesome Seminary Adventure.” Thank you.)