Good morning and welcome to Religious Life Sunday. This is a new thing for the Episcopal Church: an official, public, church-wide recognition of the role that the Religious play in the life of the Church. Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians have been comfortable with Religious for a long time, but it’s still a fairly recent thing in the Anglican Communion, even though Anglican religious Orders have been around for quite a while. But so many people still have no idea we exist. I hope this celebration every year will correct that.
Now, I am going to slide over a distinction that the national church makes. They make a distinction between religious orders — who take vows of poverty and live in community — and spiritual communities, who live under vows, but generally take vows of simplicity instead of poverty and are dispersed. As far as I am concerned, we are all religious orders. We all take vows and we all live under a Rule — something that guides our way of life.
There will be a lot of sermons preached today about what the religious life is like, how it feed’s one spirit and can bring one closer to God. And that’s not a bad thing, because many people just don’t know what is involved. Here at Holy Cross many of you have a better idea because you have watched me go through the various stages, from inquiry to postulancy to novitiate to life profession. And I have tried to share what was going on, and will be glad to talk about the details another time. For now, let’s just say that the religious life is a structured way of living out the Baptismal Vows, with accountability to one’s brothers and sisters.
But I am going to take a different tack this morning and talk about this concept of a “call.” This week in the Gospel we get the story of the calling of the first Apostles: Peter, Andrew, James, and John. It’s particularly appropriate for this Religious Life Sunday, because those of us who are in the religious life all feel that we are there because we are called to it.
One of the failings, I think, in our church is that we generally think of a spiritual “calling” as being a calling to the ordained ministry, to be a deacon or a priest. But that is just not true. Some, yes, are called to be ordained, but others are called to be Sunday School teachers, or Lectors, or Worship Leaders, or Acolytes, or on Vestry, or to work in the Food Pantry. There are many calls, and no one call is better, or more holy, than any other. They are just…different.
A “call” is just an indication from God that he wants you to do something. It’s really that simple.
Another thing we tend to think is that calls come as a bolt out of the blue, that you just know when you’re called. And that may happen to some. But it does’t always work that way. Sometimes the Holy Spirit has to work a little harder. And I will use my own story of discerning that call to explain.
I blame three specific people for the fact that I am in this habit now. Maybe “blame” is the wrong word. But I credit these people with being specific conduits through which I…eventually…heard the Holy Spirit urging me toward the Anglican Order of Preachers: the Reverend Annette Joseph, our former rector; my now Dominican Brother, Professor Andee Book, who teaches voice at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff; and our Presiding Bishop, the Most Reverend Michael Curry. There are people in the Order, of course, who guided me along after I got started, but these three people were instrumental in pointing the way for me.
When Rev. Annette was our rector, she one day said that she was looking for people who wanted to learn to preach. She wanted to have lay preachers in the parish. I had actually felt before this was something I might want to do, so I told her I would. I was the only taker. I wasn’t sure that I could really do it, but I felt compelled to try. She oversaw my training and got me licensed as a lay preacher in the diocese.
Later, I was feeling that I needed to look for a closer walk with God, and discovered there were these things called “Religious Orders” and “Religious Communities” in the Episcopal Church. It took some googling, but I found out that there were Orders that didn’t require you to live in a monastery, but you still lived according to a Rule. I remember telling Kim, “I think I could do that.”
I had known Andee Book since a community theatre production of “Chicago”, where he played the piano and I played Billy Flynn. He later, at some point, became our church organist for a short time before moving to Arkansas and becoming an educator. We became Facebook friends, but I didn’t really notice that he had become a novice in the Anglican Order of Preachers. One day on Facebook I mentioned that I was looking at religious orders, and he responded with something to the effect of “If you get serious, I can hook you up.”
Well, I futzed around, still reading. I did get a copy of the book that is used by the Anglican Order of Preachers for inquirers and read through that. It seemed like a good fit – an order that focuses on study and preaching. But I didn’t take it any further for a while, although I did begin praying the Daily Office about this time.
Several months later, at the annual conference of the Vergers Guild of the Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry was our keynote speaker. His sermon at the eucharist was on evangelism. Now, let me tell you, if you can get a bunch of vergers – the original “decently and in order” folks – worked up about evangelism, you can call yourself a preacher. That man can preach. And I was feeling the pull.
I had been feeling…uncomfortable for some time. Nothing I could put into words, just…not content. Like there was something I needed to do. After listening to Bishop Curry’s sermon, I prayed about it that evening in the hotel room in Atlanta. And then I messaged Andee and said, basically, “hook me up.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. Well, maybe not history, but from that point on there were no real questions anymore about what I should do. I messaged a friend in Montana at some point, a friend who had been a verger and become a deacon, and told her about the whole thing. She said “You feel better now, don’t you? I’m not surprised.”
Was that the end of it? Oh, heck no. I had to go through a period of several months as an inquirer, where you are led through a series of readings and questions to see if you just might have a call to the Order. Then you can apply for postulancy. Postulancy takes another year of reading, prayer, and discernment and you’re not even a member yet. If you get through postulancy and are approved to become an actual brother or sister, you spend two more years as a novice before you can be approved to make lifetime vows as a full brother or sister. Every one of those steps involves studying and praying and trying discern if this life is really what you are called to do.
Now you know the whole story. The point I am making through all this is that not all calls come with flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. It’s not — at least it wasn’t for me — a matter of Jesus walking by and just saying “Follow me.” Instead, calls often come as a series of nudges toward where God wants you to be.
But it does take prayer. You have to talk to God to really understand what he wants to tell you. And most importantly, you have to listen.
If you feel that you need a closer walk with God, that you need something deeper, I would urge you to consider religious communities. Every community has a different charism, or gift of the Spirit, that it seeks to develop. The Anamchara Fellowship focuses on spiritual direction; the Dominicans, as you should know by now, focus on study, prayer, and preaching; the Rivendell Fellowship focuses on hospitality; the Franciscans…well, if you want to know more about them, I’m sure Brother Brian Sadler, who will be with us for the foreseeable future, would be glad to speak with you. On the National church’s website there is a section for religious communities. I know members of many these communities and can “hook you up,” if you want to know more.
You may have seen the University of Phoenix’s TV commercial where a man’s wife tells him she read where you could get a Master’s degree in 11 months for 11 thousand dollars. Suddenly, the man is seeing the number 11 everywhere. And there’s a wild-looking man on the street saying “The signs are all around us.”
The signs may be all around you if you pay attention. It took me months before I read the signs well enough to even inquire. Or maybe you’re not called to the religious life, but you’re called somewhere else. Whatever it is, the main thing is to have the courage to respond to the call, even when it’s something you’ve never done before, something you’re a little afraid of. The courage to trust that God will guide you to where He wants you to be.
Believe me, you will feel so much better when you do.