Listen to the audio: http://www.gracechurchamherst.org/the-rev-sarah-syer-12217/
Several times in seminary, I heard there were two dualistic types of discipleship: the actives and the contemplatives. The actives being the go-getters: creating new programs, organizing peoples, perhaps even initiating marches across the country and across the world. The contemplatives being the spiritually centered ones: spending time reading, reflecting, and praying on behalf of others. Listening with open ears and hearts for the voice of God in their midst. Both models of discipleship are needed and desired within the Body of Christ. We must have both action and contemplation.
Yet taking a look at our calling as disciples of Christ, I think we tend to lift up one form of discipleship over the other (not surprising considering our cultural context). We live in a world that undervalues contemplation. Instead we are taught we always have to be doing something; busying ourselves with tasks both big and small. Even though this is the cultural norm, this is not the sole model we witness in today’s Gospel reading from Matthew (although at first glance it might appear so).
Sometimes for me this Bible passage feels so ambitious for us to replicate. The disciples, Peter, Andrew, James and John, drop everything to follow Christ. They are called out of their boats, out of their careers, out of their comfort zone, and they take their faith into immediate action. Yet today’s Gospel reading is much more complex if we look to the main character. Even after Jesus has been baptized by John in the River Jordan, and wanders in the wilderness for forty days (you think that’d be long enough), he does not go immediately; he does not begin his ministry immediately. Instead in the first verse of this passage the Scripture states, Jesus “withdrew to Galilee.”
Jesus withdrew. Taking time to process all that has happened to him in the last few chapters. Taking time to listen for the voice of God, his Father. Taking time to discern what he was called to do; how he was called to reach and teach God’s people. Jesus withdrew and took time for contemplation.
And this is not out of character for Jesus. Dare we ask: “Was he even an extrovert?” In fact, Jesus withdraws several times throughout the jam packed Gospel narratives. He is exacerbated both with his disciples and with the crowds. For example, in Mark 1:35, “In the morning while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” Or Luke 5:15-16,“But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.” And Matthew 13:1-3, “Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying; “Listen! A sower went out to sow…” Or who can forget those moments in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus withdraws from the disciples and prays to the Father for strength to meet what is coming.
In these moments of quiet contemplation, Jesus was able to understand his calling, to discern his vocation. As Frederick Buechner would say, in Christ’s moments of solitude: Jesus found where his deep gladness would meet the world’s deep need. But what is this deep gladness? This rootedness in who we are? And how can we ever hope to find it ourselves?
From the desert fathers and mothers of the 3rd century to the modern contemplatives like Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen, this deep gladness is a pearl of great price: not one paid but acquired through quiet times of deep thought, reflecting on how indeed God knit you together with the Divine’s unique and special image. This uniqueness is personality and temperament but it is also how we reflect on our strengths, and sometimes more so, our limitations. Our deep gladness resides in the working out of salvation, not from an original sin point of view but from an abundant life perspective. A perspective that leads to self discovery, self awareness, and ultimately action. Building up the body of Christ with the deep feeling of knowing how your unique image of God mixed with divine interventions allows you to find gladness and begin to mend a very broken world.
In his times of contemplation, Jesus was able to find his deep gladness, his inner strength, his true vocation in this world. And from this contemplation, and only from this contemplation, Jesus was able to begin his ministry. Our Gospel for today begins with contemplation: “Jesus withdrew,” and then ends with action: “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” His solitude led to social justice; his reflection led to redemption; his contemplation led to action. “Vocation is the place where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need.”
Like Jesus, without discerning where our deep gladness lies, we can never truly give of ourselves and transform the world around us. My friends, do we take the time as individuals, as a community, and as a nation, to listen for the word of God breaking forth into our hearts? Let’s be honest, we at Grace Church do a phenomenal job with the action piece—with creating awareness in our communities, with marching alongside our sisters and brothers, with protesting injustice in our midst. I do not want to halt us from this work, but I want to remind us from where such work must stem.
Now more than ever, when there are so many voices vying for our attention—from the media, to politicians, to those espousing messages of hate—; now more than ever, we need to learn to listen. We need to hear the Word of God, the voice of the almighty stirring the silence of our hearts. Now more than ever, we need to “double down on prayer,” as our own Bishop Doug Fisher would say. Now more than ever, we are called to discover where God has empowered us, as individuals and as a community, so that we can empower others.
Your calling should ask you to be your unique self so that you serve as a member of the Body of Christ. This calling, this vocation, must be about being before doing, which means that vocation is not synonymous with career. Yes, it could be incorporated into your career. You could be a hospice nurse: walking with others in that liminal space between death and life. Or you could be a family lawyer: helping children who are normally subjected to a corrupt justice system, to find the love they so desperately need. Or (as so many of you are) you could be a professor: educating students to open their hearts and minds to understand the other in their midst and around the world.
Yet, like the disciples, vocation can be totally separate from your intended career. Perhaps your vocation is being a grassroots organizer: creating networks that challenge our politicians on climate change. Or being a nature photographer: portraying how God speaks to your soul so that maybe others can see the transcendent before their very eyes. Or maybe being your church’s resident historian: preserving our past so that we can continue to discern our future.
All of us, now more than ever, must discern where our deep gladness meets the world’s deep need. We must double down on prayer so that we can double down on social justice. Then, and only then will we be able to hear exactly where Jesus is calling us to follow, exactly where we must go, exactly where we can meet the world’s deep need and usher forth the coming kingdom of God.