Sunday, October 4, 2015

Celebration of New Ministry: The Rev. Dave Woessner at St. Michael's-on-the-Heights

I first stepped foot in this parish in the early months of 1998, as the brand new rector of St. Francis Church in Holden. Our senior warden wanted us to do a vestry retreat “off-site” and she suggested we do it here. And since I always listened to my wardens, we did just that. 

I first met Dave when I was chairing the Commission on Ministry and the rector of All Saints Church, Kevin Bean, brought Dave to an inquirers meeting to consider ordination.

So when I began as Canon to the Ordinary back in June 2013, and I came here early on with Ed Farrell who was, at the time, the interim transition officer for our diocese, a chain of events was set in motion that ultimately led to this day. As with all discernment, however, it’s a lot easier to see it from the present backwards than it was then to know back then where it was going to end up. I believe I’ve preached and supplied in this parish more than in any other in this diocese since taking this new call. In any case, all of this feels like a long time ago, but right now, looking at all of you from this pulpit, it seems providential that the long and winding path of Dave’s road to ordination and of this congregation’s search for a priest-in-charge would converge.

And so it came to pass that Deacon Dave came to serve this parish. I was honored to be here in the pews on the Feast of St. Benedict when Deacon Dave became Father Dave, and am honored tonight to bring greetings from Bishop Fisher as we celebrate this new shared ministry that is already well underway. 

As Christians our central narrative is the one about how on the night before Jesus died for us, Jesus took the bread and he blessed it, and broke it, and gave it to his friends saying: “do this for the remembrance of me.” This narrative is central to our identity and our calling: because there is one bread and one body, we who are many are one – for we all partake of the one bread. With hope and confidence we therefore make our song, from Holy Baptism to the grave: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

This story not only helps us to remember who we are (and to re-member week after week who we are) but it points us outward to the world where we are called to become what we have received as living members of this risen Body of Christ. This story not only roots us in a great cloud of witnesses, but it shapes the people we are becoming, always with God’s help.

I wonder tonight, Dave: what are the stories that you tell yourself about who you are, and what it means to be a pastor and priest? And I wonder tonight, St. Michael’s: what are the stories you tell yourselves about who you are and what your priest should look and act like?

And here is what excites me, and when I’m honest also scares the daylights out of me: I wonder how those stories are going to continue to intersect and sometimes even collide in the weeks and months and years ahead. How will a young priest (we used to say “baby priest” back in the day, but maybe that is no longer politically correct?) will grow into the priest needed for this particular time and this particular place and at the same time how this particular congregation will be stretched and grow as these narratives come together. If by God’s grace they are framed by that larger narrative of Jesus taking the bread and blessing and breaking and giving it, then the new thing that God is doing here on the heights and around the city of Worcester will revive us all as the next chapter of this priest and this congregation gets written. To say this another way, it's not all about us. It's about the bread - and how Jesus takes it and blesses it and breaks it and gives it to us all. 

Our stories about who we are shape the people we are becoming. So they matter not only because of what was, but they both limit and make possible what will be. I wonder if this is in part what Jesus meant when he talked so much about new wine and old wineskins. Tonight is a happy night and a real celebration. But sooner or later (if it’s not happening already) the old stories will collide and there will be conflict. Count on it. It may be little or it may be big, but it will happen. And then the question is: what to do with that? Are we willing in that moment to learn some new songs, or will we be controlled by the old tapes?

There are some narratives here at St. Michael’s, for example, about conflict. And perhaps those who have been bruised wish there would never be conflict again – not ever, just a very long honeymoon with a nice new priest. And they all lived happily ever after. 

But of course that is a fantasy, a wish dream. I can tell you this with the assurance that an old priest like me has learned over time: Dave is going to disappoint you. He’ll do something, sooner or later, that will collide with your narrative of what a good priest is supposed to do. He is talented, but he’s human. And Dave, ditto for these good folks. They will break your heart at some point.

But when that happens, there is both opportunity and danger. In that moment in time it may be that Dave is right, which will be an invitation for St. Michael’s to change. Or it may be that he is wrong, which will be an invitation for him to change. But far more likely, it’ll be a little of both. And therefore an opportunity to write a new script, with God’s help. To be re-scripted by the Holy Spirit, to embrace the new thing, shaped by God’s story of the bread taken and blessed, broken and shared by priest and people. What I want to say to you tonight is that it is such moments hold within them the possibility of new and abundant life – and of new stories written together, and of hope for a future filled with possibilities where the reign of God breaks in. Such moments make Easter morning not something to be intellectually debated but moments when you know that the risen Christ is not lying in a tomb but is alive, and here, now. Be known to us, Lord Christ, in the breaking of the bread.

Do you all remember Gary Larson? There’s an old “Far Side” cartoon I’ve always appreciated: God is in the kitchen, cooking up the world. And the image of God in the picture is of that old bearded creator, hair a little wild. So “he’s” got all kinds of ingredients to sprinkle over the globe, which is in a skillet on the stove. There are birds and trees and reptiles; light-skinned people and medium-skinned people and dark-skinned people. But the “spice” that Chef God is holding in his hands says “jerks.”  And the thought bubble over Chef God’s head reads: “…just to make it interesting…”

A few years back I read a little book published by The Alban Institute, written primarily for clergy, with the title “Never Call Them Jerks.” It’s a good book about dealing with difficult behaviors in congregations. Now here is the thing: the fact that a book needed to be written on this topic with that title about the challenges of congregational life makes the very point that it’s not always easy. Sometimes in the midst of our own disappointments and conflicts and hurts, we are tempted to see those who stand in our way as “jerks.” I read that book just when I needed it, because I was dealing with some folks at St. Francis that I was tempted to call jerks and not because I thought they were making the world interesting.

Authentic faith communities take a lot of work. It’s a whole lot easier to be spiritual, but not religious and to go for long walks on the beach than it is to be part of a living, authentic community of faith. But this is what Baptism into Christ demands of us. We are called into a communion of saints, into a great cloud of witnesses. And here is the thing, our Lutheran friends get this so well: every saint is also, always, a sinner. This means that ministry is supposed to be hard, and is always interesting.

This brings me to tonight’s gospel reading. It comes from what the Biblical scholars call “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.” He and the Twelve have gathered in the Upper Room. For John it’s not a Seder – the paschal lamb is going to die on a cross the next day. There is no institution of the Eucharist, a reminder that the early Christian communities were able to tolerate a diversity of narratives. Rather, Jesus has gathered his friends together to give them some final instructions. After supper he takes a towel and some water and he washes their feet – some of them are reluctant at first, but he insists.

And then this: they, and we, are commanded to love one another. It’s not an option. Jesus gives us a mandatum novum—a new mandate that we love one another. On this commandment rests all the law and the prophets. Want to be a Christian? Love God, love your neighbor. Even the one who is in this country illegally? Yes. Even the one who passes me on the right going 85 miles an hour on 290? Yes. Even the one who roots for the New York Yankees? Yes. Even the one who sits two pews away from me on Sunday mornings and can’t carry a tune to save her life but still sings really, really loudly. The living, risen Christ says, “which part of this commandment are you not understanding?” Love one another.

This love isn’t about the people we like or already feel committed to or who always get it right. It isn’t about Hallmark card love on Valentine’s Day card love or even Mother’s Day card love. Nor is about giving people a free-pass and not holding them accountable for their actions.  Rather the Word became flesh so that we could see God’s glory in the world. And so that this enfleshed love might be spread in a world where there are too many wars and too many incidents of campus violence, and too much fear. The Church exists for love. Nothing else. Not to tell people what to believe or that their beliefs are wrong, but for love.

Jesus acts out a parable that is incredibly relevant to the Church in our time and in every time, because it invites us not to be conformed to this world but to be transformed in the way we talk to one another and about one another. To enter into the mystery of what our Lord does on the last night of his life is a hard and difficult path. It requires risk and vulnerability and intimacy that most of us are scared to death of. Yet this God of ours seems committed to being patient, and is “all in” on our freedom. We sometimes wish for a benevolent dictator God, but if the Incarnation means anything at all and if the Cross means anything at all – it is that we are free to despise and reject the One who stretches forth his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that all might be within the reach of his saving embrace. Or, by God’s grace, we can choose to follow him into new and abundant life, and to share with him in work of reconciliation, one day at a time.

That’s what we get, my friends. This is no cure-all for conflicts and disappointments in the Church. But the mystery of this commandment given to us by Jesus to simply love one another invites us to see one another differently—to look through a different set of lenses than we are used to. It asks us to look for the face of Jesus always, even when we think someone is being a jerk. And to be servants first to one another, and then as we practice here to be servants in the neighborhood. This commitment has the potential to change us all for good.

We gather tonight on the Feast of St. Francis. The animals have been blessed this weekend in this parish and across the diocese, and I’m sure there have been countless wonderful sermons all around the world about caring for this fragile earth, our island home. But in closing let me just add one Franciscan challenge. Live the prayer attributed to Francis which he surely lived even if he didn’t write the words. You don’t need me to tell you that the world has too much hatred and injury and discord and doubt and despair and darkness and sadness. We know that every time we pick up a newspaper or turn on the news.

But in this world, in this city, in this Burncoat neighborhood, you and I are called to be instruments of God’s peace and what that means is that we are called to sow seeds of love and pardon and union and faith and hope and light and joy. We are called to be the Church where strangers become friends, and then join together to do this work God has given us to do. We are called to focus more on understanding than being understood, which is another way of saying we need to listen. If you live out of that narrative here on the heights, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. Never easy, but well. 

Love one another.