Discernment. Are you tired of that word yet? I don’t know how many times we’ve used it this weekend, and here it is again in the gospel: the imperative of being able to discern wisely between one thing and another.
Discernment isn’t necessary if something can be decided by a simple choice — whether to have toast or oatmeal or both; to put on this shirt or that. But where the choice is not obvious and the outcome is significant, discernment is essential.
In the gospel, Jesus is saying that discernment is necessary between the claims of the emperor and the secular world and the claims of God and God’s kingdom. Where does our allegiance lie? Christian discipleship is incomplete without discernment.
This weekend we’ve been seeking to discern the leading of the Spirit, the call of God, in our lives. Assessors and candidates, Sisters and guests, we’re all in this discernment process one way or another. It’s an on-going part of the Christian life. One part of the discernment, in this particular ACPO context, is to identify a call to priestly ministry rather than to other forms of ministry — just as each of the sisters had to discern and test a call to the religious life, from among the many other Christian paths.
Discernment is about seeing clearly , and it demands openness, honesty, courage and vulnerability — the willingness to see through the clearest lens possible, and sometimes that lens is held up for us be someone else. Robbie Burns saw the precious value of that when he wrote in his poem, “To a Louse”:
O Wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae many a blunder free us,
An’ foolish notion. . .” (1786)
Or as translated into standard English:
And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And foolish notion:
You candidates have allowed yourselves to be seen by others and soon you’ll see what that looked like. I can understand your anxiety! I say again, the clear sightedness of discernment demands openness, honesty, courage and vulnerability. But it can free us from many a blunder and foolish notion.
There’s one more piece of good news, and it’s expressed in the epistle: “God has chosen you.” Paul, Silvanus and Timothy are greeting the Christians in Thessalonika, but listen to these words as though they’re being spoken directly to you, because they are!
We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ. For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you. . . (1 Thess. 1:2-4)
You are here today because of “your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” You are beloved and chosen — whether you are called to priestly ministry or to another ministry. Do you believe that? Can you trust it? All of us, ordained or lay or religious; retired or just beginning; burning with faith or getting a little rusty; successful stars or hopeless failures — all of us are brothers and sisters beloved by God, and chosen by God. There’s nothing you can do to make that cease to be true. That’s how low grace sets the bar. You are eternally beloved and chosen, whether you recognize it and live into it or not.
Even Cyrus, the king of Persia, unbeknownst to himself, was chosen by God as the means by which the Jewish captivity under the Babylonians would end.
Listen again to what Isaiah writes:
“Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
whose right hand I have grasped. . .
I will go before you. . . .
I call you by your name,
I surname you . . . .
I arm you, though you do not know me. . . .”
Imagine that! — being grasped by the hand and called by name to do something for God — even if you don’t know it. And what’s more God gives you a surname; God “surnamed” you. It’s a verb I hadn’t noticed before. And what is that surname? Beloved. Chosen. Precious. Mine.
The path of discerning God’s grace and call, active in the world and in you, is a constantly unfolding one. This ACPO weekend is part of a much larger process, a much longer journey. There will be times of clarity and times when you have no idea what God is up to. Times when you feel you’re being wonderfully used by God and times when you feel utterly useless. Take it from me; it’s true.
But the bottom line is this — God calls you by name, chooses you and loves you and God has work for you to do in this beautiful, broken world, through the grace and power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. May you discern, first and last, the truth of that.