In early June I preached Graduation Exercises for students receiving their diplomas from New York Theological Seminary. Even in spite of the preacher of the evening, it was an impressive ceremony. The students had worked long and hard and were deservedly proud. Their family members were there, smiling and celebrating.
The NYTS faculty was there in their robes and hoods. As we processed in while the music played, the audience stood and cameras flashed all around. What made it most special to me was that this was not the standard NYTS Graduation service. Instead, this ceremony was held within the locked walls of Sing Sing Prison. The students were all incarcerated there, some of them still facing years and years behind bars. But while in prison, they had an experience of Faith. They found a new reason for living. They began to pray and worship and, then, to study. They diligently pursued a rigorous academic regimen while still fulfilling all the other things required of those who are in prison. Finally, they completed the courses. That night their degrees were conferred. As we dined together following the service, several of those students spoke of their sense of Calling, their dreams of doing ministry in a world of need.
One of those graduates spoke with me about his Calling (i.e., his sense of being chosen by God to do sacred work for God). He is a man who will remain behind bars for a long time to come. He’s not free to take his newly-earned degree out to one of the five boroughs to become pastor of a church. He cannot apply for a staff position at some suburban parish in a lovely little community in Connecticut or New Jersey. His parish will be within the confines of Sing Sing. Nonetheless, he was excited, enthusiastic, and energized. He beamed as he talked to me about the ministry he feels so privileged to do. He was all smiles and animated as he spoke about sharing his faith with men who had made wrong choices. “All of us here took bad paths at some point,” he said. “But now I can help these men find a better path to travel.” Before our conversation concluded, he made a statement that I found insightful and inspiring. “I did not earn the right to do this work,” he said. “Jesus chose me for it. I cannot imagine why. I mean me, of all people. But, I’ll tell you this, if Jesus chose me, then He knows what He’s doing!”
Jesus did not simply use soft and sweet people to do His work. He called tax collectors, Zealots (who preferred swords to plowshares), harlots, publicans, and people like Peter, James, and John who had ego and anger management issues. Jesus chose real people, warts and all, to serve Him and build The Church. I like that because it says to me that despite my myriad imperfections, God can still use me to do sacred work, too. To witness. To help. To encourage. To share Faith. To love. To make the world a little better place that it might otherwise be. As I said recently during a sermon at WeWo: “We don’t have to be worthy. We simply have to be willing.”
Broken and guilty and wounded are we.
And yet Christ keeps calling: “Rise up, follow Me.”
There is something special God has in mind for you to do. Don’t let guilt or self-doubt get in the way. As that gentleman at Sing Sing put it, if you are Called to a holy task, God knows what God is doing.