My late father Sam had three sons: Joel, Joseph, and me. Born of my father’s first wife, Joel is my half brother and five years my senior. Joseph and I share the same mother. Born three years before me, Joseph died before I came on the scene.
My father also had two daughters. Marsha is his oldest child, ten years older than me and daughter of his first wife. My mother bore Marie when I was three, and Marie died soon thereafter. They are an important part of my larger story, too, but they do not figure as the main characters in the portion of the story that I want to share with you right now.
Instead, I want to focus on how I responded to being Joel’s half brother. Without realizing it until many years later, I responded to my place in this family matrix by gradually adopting a spirituality whose motto could be summarized in two words. Try harder. In other words, I was a misguided Christian for many years.
Throughout my childhood, Joel seemed to me to be fit, athletic, handsome, slim, and gregarious. By contrast, I saw myself as pudgy, homely, clumsy, and shy.
When the three of us fished together in my father’s little johnboat, Joel always cast his lures exactly where he intended and caught more fish than I did. By contrast, I alternated sitting idly while my father untangled my fouled line and enduring his irritation for hooking bits of his clothing on the backswing of my casts.
All of this made me miserable.
Maybe someday I will tell this story with the warm glow of nostalgia. But today I tell it with some embarrassment. My discomfort doesn’t come from my catastrophically bad fishing skills as a boy. Instead, I recognize now that my misery was a product of my constant struggle to outperform my half brother.
Warranted or not, I perceived that my father preferred Joel. It didn’t help that the two of them teamed up to make fun of my weight and my ineptitude at a variety of manly pursuits. To be honest, they may have been trying to connect with me in their own way. Whatever their intentions, I read it as condescension and contempt.
In my child’s heart, I came to believe that I could win my father’s respect, approval, and affection by getting better and better at the things he valued. Joel was the standard by which I measured myself. Is it really any surprise that I would unwittingly transfer this transactional approach to my relationship with my father to my relationship with God?
Well, that’s exactly what I did. God became for me the heavenly father to whom I had to prove myself worthy and lovable.
As a child my try-harder spirituality expressed itself in being a goody goody. Well, at least mostly. With adolescence, this all began to change, so that with early adulthood, I became the smart, cynical, party guy. I was never going to get God’s approval anyway—just as I had never really gotten my father’s approval—so to heck with it.
By God’s persistent grace, my heart was never fully in the smart, cynical, hedonist game. My desire to be in relationship with God in Christ grew while I ignored and even resisted it. In time, that desire grew strong enough to give me the courage to drop the smart, cynical guy act and to have the courage to be vulnerable enough to admit my unquenchable yearning for God’s love.
But old faulty lessons do not fade easily, especially lessons learned in earliest childhood. As I turned to God with renewed sincerity and ardor, I nevertheless retained my misguided sense that God was a father whose approval and acceptance I needed to win.
And so, I threw myself into prayer and study and ministries. I tried harder to be religious. This didn’t stop once I was ordained. I offered more Bible studies, visited the sick more frequently, increased the number of weekday services, agreed to more diocesan work, and saw more people for one-on-one spiritual direction.
Eventually, Jesus pulled me aside and reminded me of his mother. Over time Mary’s example corrected my spiritual vision. She showed me that life is not about trying harder. But neither is it about giving up. Life is about giving in. Giving in to God’s love for us.
The Angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she was to conceive. Or more precisely, he said something like this. “Congratulations! You’re conceiving as we speak!”
In response, Mary said, “How can this be? I am a virgin.”
To our ears, influenced as they are by a thoroughly scientific age, this question sounds like this: This is physically impossible. Explain the mechanism by which a virgin can conceive.
Mary was not asking for a scientific explanation. Neither was she expressing doubt. She was admitting powerlessness. She was acknowledging a simple fact. Conceiving at that moment was completely beyond her abilities. And yet she recognized an invitation from God to be a part of what God is up to.
Mary could say yes to engaging God’s mission precisely because she had no illusion that participating in God’s work of restoration and reconciliation had anything to do with her ability to achieve something. Instead, Mary recognized that God sought something else entirely. God called Mary to say yes to what he can do through her so long as she didn’t stand in the way.
Paradoxically, God’s strength works most effectively through our weakness. As God said to the apostle Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
In other words, Mary acknowledged her own powerlessness precisely in order to say yes to God’s power working through her. Or as Mary herself put it six months later when visiting her cousin Elizabeth, “[H]e has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant….; for the Mighty One has done great things for me.” (Luke 1:48-49)
What Mary did is completely unrepeatable: she bore the Son of God. And yet how she did it sets an example for all of us who seek to follow Christ. She gave in to God’s power working through her.
Each of us has been created uniquely by God to play a role that is ours and ours alone in the fabric of his creation. No one else can do what God created you or me to do. We gain nothing by comparing ourselves to others. Such comparisons lead only to condescension or despair.
Following Christ is not about trying harder and harder to please God. Instead, it is to give in to the truth that God already delights in us, and to give in to that delight, so that his redeeming love can accomplish infinite beauty and immortal goodness through the frail and fragile likes of us.
This sermon was preached at St. Thomas in Monroe, Louisiana.