6 Epiphany Year A Episcopal Church at Yale
The Rev. Paul J. Carling, Ph.D. February 16, 2020
Deuteronomy 30: 15-20 – Matthew 5: 21-37
In case you hadn’t noticed, as a priest, I absolutely ADORE ministry with young adults. First, because it offers endless opportunities for an adult like me to make a fool of himself. And second, because the extraordinary gifts you all have, simply by being at this amazing crossroads of your life, sometimes seem to me wholly unappreciated by the larger church. I firmly believe that your insatiable curiosity, your unwillingness to accept some faith tenet simply because an adult says so, your passion for having your faith really MATTER in all parts of your life, your rejection of hypocrisy and the ways that faith has been used to coerce and wound people, your deep sense of integrity – these are the gifts that will save our faltering church, by re-creating it in God’s image, a God of exploration, of questioning, of journeying and companionship, of spiritual life, and not death.
It may have become boring to you, but by now you probably know by heart one of my favorite expressions: that the fundamental task of young adulthood is to replace the second-hand religion you were given as a child, with the first-hand faith of a personal relationship with God.
And however you may tire of my saying that, I see evidence all around me that you’re pursuing this proposition with gusto.
Last week was a really great one for me at ECY. I had three different students talk to me about the profound changes they were experiencing in the very nature of their faith – one had decided to change denominations; another had decided that the wholly male image of God learned in a strict religious childhood no longer made sense, wondering whether a more balanced sense of divine parenthood might be found in the Wiccan tradition; and a third struggled with, “How on earth will I integrate my experience in recovery with all these things I’m asserting in the Nicene Creed?” Interestingly, each one embraced a common challenge of trying to incorporate these new perspectives and experiences and discoveries into their deepening relationship with Jesus Christ. And my response to each of these turbulent tsunamis of faith was the same, “Thanks be to God; you go girl, you go guy! What a PERFECT way to build an adult relationship to God,” I said, “YOUR PERSONAL AND UNIQUE RELATIONSHIP, by trying out every alternative you can find, and settling into what’s real… until part of that needs adjusting as well. Don’t settle on someone else’s faith,” I suggested “Grow your own!” You are doing exactly what Moses encouraged, you are choosing life.
Welcome to the adult life of faith, my beloveds, a roller coaster in which the only solid ground is God’s unconditional, enduring, persistent love and grace, infinitely more valuable than a particular belief at a particular time.
I actually learned all this during my very first year as a priest, when I met Randy, a strapping, very quiet young carpenter working on our house one summer. What attracted me, even more than his excellent skills, was his intensity, the deep wisdom and kindness in his eyes, the shy smile.
“I’m a fundamentalist Buddhist,” he said with a twinkle. A mid-westerner with strict, religiously rigid parents, he found himself spiritually suffocated. So, he came East, rejected religion entirely, and like the Prodigal Son, completely lost touch with his parents. Over the summer, we chatted about his exciting new relationship with Debbie, one of my parishioners. When I asked about marriage, he laughed out loud: “Debbie and I’ve agreed,” he said, “that marriage is for people who don’t know any better.”
Because living in construction gets old, Cherise and I flew off to Italy for a month’s vacation. When we got back, the job was done, and Randy was in the local hospital, completely unrecognizable. In just four weeks, he’d become completely emaciated and jaundiced by virulent lung cancer. In great pain, his only concern was for Debbie – would I care for her through his death?
Randy lived eight more weeks, the most transformational ones in my young ministry. Through long conversations about Jesus and Buddha, Native American spirituality, and more, he realized the simple truth that God in Jesus had been loving him, tracking him, indeed leading him through every step of this circuitous faith journey.
In week five, we brought him to our small Episcopal Church, just that once. When he left, he felt completely forgiven and reconciled with God and his family.
His parents did the best they could, desperately asking, “Did Randy actually SAY he’d accepted Jesus Christ as his personal savior?” They softened when he explained, “I’m as close to Jesus right now as I could ever be.”
A week before Randy died, he and Debbie asked if I’d marry them, and I did. They shared more love in that week than many couples share in a lifetime – they’d learned to love with their whole hearts, as though each day mattered, because it did.
Almost two decades later, I still keep Randy’s picture on my desk. It reminds me of the profound daily wisdom in Moses’ advice, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…”