Just imagine. You’re going about your daily tasks – these days, quite likely “multi-tasking” which, recent studies say, no one can do very well, even if we think we can. Anyhow, you’re doing your best to live a good, decent, productive life. And, out of nowhere it seems, the voice of One rooted and grounded in the Spirit of Justice-Love tells you to put down whatever you’re doing and come, now. Why, you do not know, but One whose energy seems to flow from the Wellspring of Life itself spills over into your heart and mind and dreams… “Follow me,” it says, to you. It makes no sense, not in the real world, in which you actually need to make some money to support yourself and others too – spouse/partner, kids, aging parents, a disabled sister perhaps, or maybe a sibling who is mentally ill. There are others to think of, you argue, you can’t just leave your life and “follow” what seems to you to be, dare you suggest such a bizarre thing, the Voice of God.
And besides, you say to yourself and to whatever or whoever is arguing with you, you just don’t have it – the talent for it. You don’t have a lot of confidence in your abilities to do whatever it is you’d have to do to actually be a disciple. Not at a distance, not occasionally, but close up and routinely, to be a close friend of, and collaborator, with Jesus. What on earth could you be thinking? Are you nuts?
Tonight we remember Jesus’ telling Andrew, along with older brother Peter, to put down their fishing nets and come with him. “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” We are also here to celebrate the 46th Anniversary of David Conolly’s Ordination to the Priesthood. Now David, being David, asked me not to focus on him but rather on the biblical text or Saint Andrew or something else. So I will do as instructed – up to a point! Because there is no better way to reflect on discipleship than to lift up an example of one among us who did indeed put down his “fishing nets” to follow Jesus – our beloved friend, colleague, pastor, and priest, David Conolly.
Forty-two years ago, David and I were both ministers – he, a young priest; I, a seminarian and lay assistant – in a mid-sized, middle class parish in Charlotte, North Carolina, a mid-sized city in the U.S. South. These were turbulent times – for a nation in throes of transformation through the struggle for Civil Rights for Black Americans and also in turmoil over its ill-advised War in Vietnam.
These were disturbing times also for the predominantly white Episcopal/Anglican church in the United States — in those days, a church afraid of Black rage and of student protests against racism and against The War; a church resentful of, and still largely resistant to, the struggles for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War. Within six months of David’s arrival at St. Martin’s Church in Charlotte and my completion of my first semester of seminary, both Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy would lie dead at the hands of assassins.
This was the social backdrop of David’s introduction to parish ministry in the United States during his 4th year as a priest. What, in this context, did it mean for young David to put down his nets and follow Jesus? Having been there myself, often at his side, I can tell you, with certainty, that this question of discipleship was front and center in David’s heart and mind: what on earth did it involve – to follow Jesus through such turbulence as that which shook the United States in the late 1960s? Add to the social upheaval the various sorts of personal unrest that we go through – who are we, as persons yearning for right, mutually empowering relationship with friends, family, lovers? When all of these questions about the world, the nations, the churches, our personal and interpersonal lives get stirred up together – in the most confounding mixtures – how on earth do we know what it means, to put down our nets and follow Jesus?
Hanging out with young priest David in those early days, I learned a lot about what it means. In particular, I experienced David both as a profoundly gentle, caring pastor to those in need and as a bold, prophetic leader in helping the church find its voice in the struggle for Civil Rights. I often think of David when people declare falsely that church leaders must choose between being pastors and prophets. This is a false and unimaginative choice. To be deeply transformative as either pastor to the people or prophet among the them, a disciple of Jesus must be both. David Conolly is a living witness to this.
It’s not easy, of course; as a matter of fact, it’s always a challenge, because we always resist prophets – especially at home, as the Good Book says. (“A prophet is without honor…”) Think about it: The pastor is telling us that God loves us just as we are, and the prophet is telling us that God wants us to take some stand that we haven’t yet taken. What sounds like a contradiction is, in the Spirit of God, a stunning and beautiful paradox: God does love us just as we are, each and every one of us, in the fullness of our marvellous selves. When we see each other through God’s eyes – that is, come to regard one another as a sister/brother – we realize how true it is, that God loves us, all of us, as we are. And BECAUSE God loves each and all of us, not just some of us, it is our human call – our vocation as a human being, a brother or a sister to Jesus – to do our part, whatever it may be, in the struggles to make this world a more welcoming, fairer, more deeply just, home for us all. BECAUSE as pastors we love one another, we must live boldly, prophetically, as well. That’s what I learned from David Conolly about what it means to follow Jesus, not because David said so, but because it’s how he worked as a priest in Charlotte North Carolina forty two years ago.
Now, it’s important to note that, together, he and I learned a lot – because one of the things we learned was that the best way we humans can follow Jesus, as pastors and prophets, is –TOGETHER, as teams, co-workers, partners, coordinating efforts, each with parts to play, sometime interchangeable, sometimes not. We learned that Jesus does not call us to be lone ranger-supermen/superwomen, heroes, on our own, standing out, but rather Jesus draws us in to be participants in the work of loving our neighbors, making justice roll down like water, and praying in faith, with vigor, for the world and church and for ourselves that we may live with good humor and perspective and gratitude in whatever places and times we may find ourselves, in Charlotte NC 1968 or Melbourne VIC 2010.
There is much about organized religion, including the Anglican Church, that is a bother. But there is also much about Anglicanism that is marvelous – I think first of its great theology of “participation” – Richard Hooker’s term, meant to inspire our faith in a God who “participates” with us, radically in our midst, not far removed; a God in whose relational image and through whose very active Spirit, we are empowered to “participate” with one another as “friends of God, and prophets.”
Faithful disciples, be they Jesus’ own friends in his own time, people like Andrew, or among us now, like David and Dennis and all who are willing to put down our nets and follow Jesus, are those who enjoy “participating” with God and one another in the ongoing creation of a world in which everyone, and all creatures great and small, are regarded with love and respect.
American author and poet Annie Dillard warns of the temptation to mistake “caution for wisdom.” I’d say this is one of organized religion’s greatest sins. As an institution, we are too often inclined to imagine that it’s wise to play it safe and simply remain silent on the controversial matters of our time – right now in the United States and Australia, matters of religious tolerance, immigration, economic justice, environmental protection, and gay marriage and gender justice come to mind. On all these matters, the churches back home tend to mistake caution for wisdom too much of the time. This is ethical nonsense and pastoral poppycock! The Sophia/Wisdom of God is NEVER to remain silent in the face of injustice and oppression; this means that, in the real world, we can’t both follow Jesus and “play it safe.” But a final warning about what is involved in following Jesus: Dorothee Soelle, German “political” theologian and, later in her life, an outspoken feminist theologian of liberation, wrote a little book of poetry back in the 1970s called “Revolutionary Patience.” In this book and throughout her work, Dorothee Soelle wrestles with the tension between what we followers of Jesus can expect – and when. Like St. Augustine so many years ago, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, her German theological forerunner martyred by the Nazis in 1945, Dorothee Soelle struggles with the matter of TIME – how long, O Lord? How long must it take… for justice to roll down like waters (Amos)? How long will the wicked prosper? How long is our shared journey, this “long and winding road” (Beatles) toward justice?
I believe that the greatest challenge to our faith, and thus to our discipleship, yours and mine, is our deeply human inclination to be impatient with God and with one another. I believe that impatience is at least as great an impediment to our faith as our ignorance and our fear are. So, we who follow Jesus must help each other cultivate “revolutionary patience” – having no patience with acts of injustice, violence, or cruelty as we encounter them in our own lives and in the world around us but, at the same time, through prayer and perseverance, generating a great deal of patience with God’s movements to build justice and bring peace among us. We need to help each other cultivate this great spiritual gift – this revolutionary patience – realizing that none of us, not you or I, not Fr. David Conolly nor Vicar Dennis Webster, not Saints Andrew or Peter, not even the brother from Nazareth, Jesus himself, can do it alone, or can do it all, or can finish God’s work today.
Perhaps we can take comfort from the wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr. who noted that “while the moral arc of the universe is long, it bends toward justice.” It is this “bending toward justice”; this historical process – this bending — requiring such revolutionary patience; this ongoing, steadfast work of discipleship; this laying down of our nets, again and again; this long and winding ministry of our friend and brother and colleague, David, that we are here to celebrate tonight!
Sermon of the Rev’d Dr. Carter Heyward on the Feast of St. Andrew and at the Celebration of the 46th Anniversary of the Ordination to the Priesthood of the Rev’d David Conolly
St. Stephen’s Anglican Church, Richmond.
30 November 2010