Beginnings of Faith (Romans 14:1-12)
Sermon by Father Mike, 9/16/20
There was a time in 2016 when I had just started seminary. Only one year before, I’d received a strange call—I was not a religious person, I didn’t know the stories of scripture, but I felt that God was calling me into church, and somehow towards ordained ministry.
So I showed up at Berkeley Divinity School, where I’d walk down a steep hill on cracked, uneven sidewalks towards our community house on St. Ronan Street where we’d pray together each morning at 7:30. The house was a mansion among mansions—its vaulted ceilings, oil paintings, and ornate crown moldings made an ordinary guy feel like a trespasser.
I swung the leather-padded double doors to the right of the foyer open to find elaborate icons, a crucifix stretching length of the far wall, and an altar that I’d come to know had been officiated over by the new world’s first Anglican bishop, Samuel Seabury. I plopped down in a well-worn wicker chair, grabbing a creased prayer book. As classmates zoomed through the book, knowing by heart where each recited prayer was found, well acquainted with the rhythms of our prayer, I nervously fumbled through the book. Others would cross themselves, bow, and perform other acts of reverence while I struggled just to find my place and muster some semblance of a prayer. I’d trudge back up the hill to Old Testament Interpretation, where in class we’d debate the nuances of biblical stories that it was assumed we’d memorized as children, but that I was just reading for the first time with amazement and curiosity. I’d avoid asking questions out of fear that I’d reveal how little I knew compared to others.
As the weeks and months continued, I began to ask myself, “Am I praying right?” And so I would go into that same chapel and as others crossed themselves, I’d mimic them a second or two later. Once someone else bowed, I’d again follow suit a few moments off-beat. Looking like the ill-prepared member of some liturgical dance troupe, I did my best to fit in and “pray correctly.” But the longer I did this, the more I realized that I wasn’t serving anyone else, nor was I serving myself—and I certainly wasn’t serving God in these feeble attempts to be someone other than myself. I’d taken a set of arbitrary gestures that helped other people to center themselves in prayer, but made me forget about prayer altogether. I learned that these gestures, or lack thereof, were not important—what was important was that whatever my posture, whatever my prayer, that my prayer was an honest and authentic one to God in Christ.
Question: Since coming to Haywood Street, how have you grown in faith?
Over the last six or seven months, it’s become incredibly apparent that we’ve had to take stock of which parts of our faith are totally essential, and which elements are mere accoutrements that we can dispose of when necessary, while still remaining faithful to God. We’ve been exiled from houses of worship, isolated from our siblings in Christ, deprived of the holiest of sacraments; on the turn of a dime, all of these things left us. And I would be remiss if I didn’t note that this is my first time preaching in front of you all in person. This is my seventh month at Haywood Street. As I entered a new place, tasked with the opportunity to be a steward of prayer and fellowship for this beautiful community, how could I not wonder what was truly necessary as so much seemed to escape us.
And what I remain more confident of than ever is that it is absolutely vital that our foundation is our prayer together in the flesh. No Christian can practice on an island. It is only in the company of others that we begin to know ourselves and God more clearly. Everything that happens on this campus, whether sharing a meal, chopping onions in the kitchen, or sharing a conversation in the garden, is only possible because a group of folks have had the courage to hold one another in prayer, to share in tears and sorrow, in joy and hope. We have to be cognizant of how wonderful of a blessing it is to be in this position again. We can never again take for granted the opportunity to be gathered together. We need this because lives of discipleship are not easy lives. We are called to stretch ourselves—to grow, learn, seek truth in conflict, to share the deep, abiding love that Christ has shared with us.
These are signifiant challenges in all times, and especially today. But as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote as a pastor in the midst of Nazi-occupied Germany, “When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.” I pray that we are at the dawn of a breaking day together, renewed by our common worship together, however we might pray.