Sunday, January 24, 2016

Loving the Questions

My great privilege, on this Third Sunday after the Epiphany, is to be the preacher and celebrant at a gathering at The Barbara C. Harris Center in New Hampshire of a group of people seeking to deepen their faith through a program of our Commission on Ministry called "Loving the Questions." The readings for the day can be found here. 
It’s an honor to be here, among all of you, this morning. Many of you are preachers in your own right, and so I feel like I’m “preaching to the choir.” That opening collect seals the deal:
Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works…
This is why you are all here, right? To “readily answer the call” by loving the questions? And then living them!
When I was a parish priest, I served as chair of the Commission on Ministry for five years before Nancy Strong. The hardest part was to feel like the system was rigged in a certain way because people declared at the front end: “the call I think I hear is to the priesthood, or to the diaconate. I hope you hear it too!” In fact, it was tempting for candidates to be more focused on selling themselves than doing honest discernment – because they sometimes felt they’d already done that work. So the work before them was to convince us they had rightly heard that call…
Sometimes we said yes. And sometimes we said no. But I’ve come to believe that we were focused on the wrong question. We are all called to ministry by virtue of our Baptism. And we all need grace (and courage) to readily answer that call. This new process will not get it all right – because nothing is ever “all right” on this side of paradise. But the desire of those who helped shape this program is to hold this truth as self-evident:  that we are members of one body, that we all have gifts. And the world needs us to use those gifts so that the work is done: proclaiming the good news to all people so that we and the whole world might perceive that God hasn’t retired to a condo in Florida, but is still working out the plan of salvation…
How, then, do we clarify how those gifts can be used so that the whole world may perceive the glory of God’s marvelous works? I invite you to love that question as you seek to live it. I think it’s the question St. Paul was honed in on in his first letter to that early Christian community in Corinth. Like all of us, St. Paul had his good days and his bad days. But he was surely in the zone when he got to the twelfth and thirteenth chapters, wasn’t he? The Body of Christ is like our own bodies – many members. But still one. Ever stub your toe or scratch your cornea? When even the smallest members hurt, the whole hurts. But when they are all working together, it’s a miracle to behold.
In today’s gospel reading we see Jesus himself – post-Baptism and post-Jordanian wilderness ready to “embrace the call” – the call unique to him, but shared by all who love him and seek to follow him. We see him preaching on an old text, and bringing it to new life. No one told Jesus that the Old Testament was about a God of vengeance. In his Bible, the scrolls of Torah and the prophets, he discovered a God of hesed, a God of steadfast love and mercy – his Abba who was still creating out of chaos toward the dawn of a new day – what Isaiah called “the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jubilee, which among other things was about redistributing the wealth. Jesus saw, in the scroll of Isaiah, good news even in the midst of a decaying Roman empire.
I wonder what it looks like for us to do the same, in our own time and place: to stand with so many for whom this world is a nightmare, and to move together toward the dream of God?
Sometime after the Babylonian exile, after the dream of Second Isaiah, after the comfort and the highway in the desert, the people do come home again. Only they soon discovered that you can never really go home. Home had changed while they were in Babylon. And they had changed too. (Yes, I just used the word “change” twice in a homily at an Episcopal camp, among a group of faithful Episcopalians!) Sorry but that is life. You cannot step in the same river twice. So we best make change our friend…
Imagine all the people of Israel gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. God’s people gathered. Because that is what God’s people do. In the days of Ezra and Nehemiah they gathered with work to be done. They were survivors. They had survived the destruction of the Temple and much of Jerusalem, and they had survived all that weeping and laying up of harps in a foreign land, what we’d call Iraq today. Even though they had not thought it possible, they had learned to sing some new songs in a foreign land. It turns out God’s people can do that too. It is not easy, but with God we can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.
In our end is our beginning, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot. All my life’s a circle, to quote Harry Chapin. There is a time and a season for everything under the sun, to quote the teacher/preacher in Ecclesiastes. Always there is work to be done for God’s people; the key is in discerning what that work looks like and sometimes the hardest part is in figuring out where we are.
So what time is it, for the Church? Are we in exile – in a strange and foreign land? Or is it time to gather the people into the square, before the Water Gate? That is a hard question because the Bible isn’t like a cookbook.  Even in this story itself, notice how Ezra opens the book in the sight of all the people and they all stood up – sounds like an Episcopal gospel procession, doesn’t it? But everyone is saying “amen, amen” and lifting up their hands so maybe it’s more like an old-fashioned Baptist tent revival? It’s a big tent!
However we come to this old text, we can recognize some preaching going on. The Bible isn’t just read – it needs to be marked and learned and inwardly digested for a new time and a new place. And so they read from the Book, from the Torah, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
I have a theory that there cannot be good preaching, let alone great preaching, without faithful hearers in the assembly. You can go to seminary but here’s a secret: there are no answers in the back of the book that you get by doing that. Whatever you may or may not learn in a Greek class or an Intro to the Prophets class or in four years of EFM still needs to be read and marked and learned and inwardly digested and then brought back to places like South Hadley and Holden and Springfield and Worcester and Holyoke, where the people gather and dare to listen for a Word of the Lord. When that happens, by God’s grace, it comes alive and the living God is with us. Even here, in Greenfield, New Hampshire. Even now, on this third Sunday of Epiphany on this January day in 2016.
And then, of course, the work begins: to be not just to be hearers of this word, but doers of it. If we are asking ourselves how to do that  in our congregations and in our homes and in our workplaces– if this is the question we are learning to love and to live, with God’s help, then all will be well. For us, for the Church, for the world.
Lord, make us instruments of thy peace.

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