Friday, November 15, 2019

The Point Of It All

In almost half century as a priest of the Church, only three people have trusted me enough to ask me to preach when they were celebrating their new ministries in congregations.  Pan, thank you for your trust, because, to be honest, preaching on this particular occasion is somewhat like preaching on Thanksgiving Day, to my mind the hardest of all occasions on which to say anything fresh and new, the message inevitably being precisely what most people expect, so obvious is the point.

Or is the point so obvious?

Lots of things can be said about the priest-congregation relationship, too many, in fact, to fit into one sermon.  But of all the things that seem most relevant to this occasion is that we need not to miss the point of it all.  And the point is not that a parish has a rector or that the pastor is now officially with her flock in a new way.  The point is what the entire ministry is about. 

One clue is captured by the title of tonight’s liturgy:  it is a renewal.  If ministry is not constantly renewing itself, it is not ministry.  I don’t know what it is, but it isn’t ministry.  Ministry is about life and living people.  It is about living things.  Indeed it is so much about life that it is not afraid to face and talk about and deal with death, because there is no life on this planet apart from death. 

Take a look at the gospel [for tonight].  As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”  The setting for these words, you might remember, is the night in which Jesus was handed over to suffering and death.  John’s gospel presents this as the heart of Jesus’ farewell discourse with his disciples. It is the night we call “Maundy Thursday,” marked in the church by recalling Jesus’ outrageous parable-in-action of washing his disciples’ feet, a unique, revolutionary idea then and now.  He is saying in effect, “If you haven’t caught on by now, let me be clear.  The point is love.  Love one another.  That is the way and the only way you have a part of me and I of you.  And this is the way it’s done.  Stoop.  The way up is the way down.  Let go.  Plumb the depths.  Don’t push to get ahead.  Don’t puff yourself up.  You already have everything you need.  Give.  Love.

Now that is not just John’s peculiar gospel.  It is the point of the entire thing, the heart of the message. 

Now compare that with your experience of church.  It might well be that you find getting down on your knees, literally or figuratively, and submitting to others is exactly what you experience [at St. Alban’s]. Or maybe not.  Let me tell you what I often see.  Sometimes I see congregations that are split apart by strife, dominated by competing egos both of clergy and laity, generally over things like the color of the carpet, not the color of somebody’s skin, though there’s that too.  I see congregations that are in a high state of anxiety because they’re not what they used to be, or not what they’d planned on being.  They’re shrinking and they think that is a terrible thing. So they say they want to grow without realizing that there is no growth without change and no change without conflict.  In fairness, I see some congregations that are filled with joyful people, joyful even while broken, glad to be together and even gladder to welcome the stranger.  What makes the difference?

I would suggest that what makes a church healthy and happy is exactly what works for an individual.  Learning new things, rejoicing in others, giving lavishly and prodigally, being open to novel ideas, swapping anxiety for the art of being vulnerable, owning the parts of ourselves that we find most difficult and challenging.  What would happen if we understood the church as a school for actually following the example of Christ?  What would it be like to acknowledge that the only reason we exist is to practice, practice, practice love in every possible way we can?  What if we constantly recalled ourselves to the one commandment that Our Lord gave us, “Love one another as I have loved you”?  Imagine a church that opened every meeting not with a perfunctory prayer but with a brief time of sharing things such as when you’ve had a moment close to Christ, or when you learned something from a mess you made, or how you climbed down a few minutes from the strain of trying to do everything perfectly and laughed at your own imperfection?

You get the picture.  Even at our best and wisest, we have a long way to go and a long way to grow.  You might say, “Well, that’s not the church I want. That’s an extrovert’s dream, not mine.”  I understand.  I invite you to consider that a renewal of ministry is more than a restarting yet again of something that has gone on for years but a willingness to ponder anew what it means to love one another, and to experiment with as many ways of loving as we can.  How can you be most natural, most true to your core self, your soul?  That, it seems to me, is the point of all this.

It’s fascinating to me that when I listen to the words from the Book of Joshua, for example, with this point of view in mind, suddenly everything begins to fall into place.  “The Book of the Law” that Joshua references is not the Bible as we know it, and certainly not the Bible used as a club to clobber people into social conformity or religious bigotry.  Ultimately that “Law” boils down to one word:  love.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.  If there is anything new in the commandment that Jesus gives to his community, it is this:  “Love one another as I have loved you.” 

Ah!  That’s the hard part.  Don’t ever believe anyone, including yourself, who says that love is a piece of cake.  It is what powers every atom in this body of God called the universe.  It is what we are created for.  But we humans have evolved in such a way that our very ability to be a conscious species gets in the way of our exercising anything like the love that Jesus models for us.  His is no sickly sweet kind of love, but one of amazing courage with arms outstretched at once to embrace the outcast and off-scouring of society and simultaneously ready to tussle with the powers of oppression found in the collusion of religion and State.  That love is the kind of love that can fully embrace mortality as he did on the cross.  So we’re talking about real fire here, an awesome energy that is anything but tame. 

The average parish church, even the spectacular parish church, is a microcosm of the Earliest Church we know of, beset with differences of opinion over hot-button issues, uncertain as to how to practice a new-found freedom in Christ, torn between custom and tradition on the one hand and the impulse to be inclusive on the other. There is no disconnect but rather continuity between how nations behave and how individuals and organizations like the church behave.  There is the ever-present issue of clashing interests fueled by fears of not being enough or having enough.  A simpler way of putting it may be, in the words of Ella Wheeler Wilcox a century ago,

So many gods, so many creeds,
  So many paths that wind and wind
  While just the art of being kind
Is all the sad world needs.[1]

The only way to get there is in fact the work of ministry.  It is to persist in practicing the process that St. Paul describes for the Romans:

Do not be conformed to this age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern the will of God—what is good and acceptable and whole.[2]

So there again is the point of it all:  the continual process of transformation, an endless spiral of renewal, learning how to be like Jesus, or, as he once put it, becoming children so that we can live in union with our Creator, creating and spreading love as if there’s no tomorrow.  To love like that is to renew ministry from its roots to its blossom. 

A sermon preached at the Renewal of Ministry and the Celebration of the Reverend Dr. Pamela Conrad as the 11th Rector of St. Alban’s Church Episcopal, Glen Burnie, Maryland, November 14, 2019.

[1] Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Voice of the Voiceless,” on the internet at, accessed November 14, 2019.

[2] Romans 12:2, translation mine.

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