Friday, September 14, 2018

Be the Church!

Tonight it was my honor to preach at the Celebration of New Ministry of the Rev. Vicki Ix, who was formally welcomed as the new vicar at St. John's Church in Ashfield, MA. Preaching at events like this (it's similar with ordinations) gives one a chance to reflect on what it means to be the Church, with God's help. The theologian's fancy word for this is "ecclesiology." Here are some reflections on ecclesiology and the practice of ministry, on this Holy Cross Day. (The readings can be found here.)

The most helpful theology, I think, is not dogmatic. It’s not about resolutions to be voted on at Convention or even in the creeds. Rather, I think, good theology is aspirational. It’s poetic. It's about how much potential there is in a mustard seed. Or about how a kid can get so lost, but then comes back home and there are tears and a welcome and veal piccata for everyone. Or about how a few fish and a couple of loaves of bread is enough when it is offered in love. The kind of theology I'm talking about can be sung in harmony, in parts where no one carries the whole truth. Congregations that learn to do theology together in this way thrive. They make space for each other and for the living God.

The hymn we heard today from the second chapter of Philippians is an example of this kind of theology I’m speaking of, and it may not be overstating it to say that everything you need to know about parish ministry can be found right there. It’s all about love. As our beloved Presiding Bishop likes to say, if it’s not about love, it’s not about God. This is not doormat-for-Jesus love (which is not really love) but sacrificial mind-of-Christ kenotic self-giving love. It’s not about humiliation; but it is about humility. It’s not about lording it over anyone, but it is about servanthood ministry. Jesus stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross so that everyone might come within the reach of God’s saving embrace.

Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus. Do that, St. John’s! Like all of us, St. Paul had good days and bad days. But Philippians 2 was a very good day, right up there with I Corinthians 13. The charge we heard from the Letter of Institution making this pastoral relationship official is rooted in this Pauline theology and it all boils down to this: Vicki, “love and serve God’s people here.” And St. John’s co-wardens, vestry, people of God: love your vicar! Share this work in the name of the risen Christ.

To make his point to the Church in Philippi (and the Church in Ashfield) you may have noticed that St. Paul quotes from the 45th chapter of the Prophet Isaiah, the one the scholars have taught us to call Second Isaiah. He connects that bit about “every knee bending and every tongue confessing” to Jesus. Isn’t this amazing stuff! We are a branch of the Jesus Movement and we bend the knee to Jesus and we confess with our lips that he is Lord. And then we pray that we might live in the world in ways that show forth where our allegiance lies: we who have been loved are called to love neighbor.

Amen? That’s it! Shall I just sit down and leave it at that? It’s enough, to be sure, and this liturgy on this Holy Cross Day and this Eucharist and these prayers and above all these bonds of affection already so palpable in this place would be more than enough to carry us all to the party that will follow this liturgy and to the work that lies ahead. Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.

But I want to keep going. You all knew that was a head fake, right? I’m a former Methodist so I’m just getting warmed up and I’m kind of an Old Testament guy so as cool as it is that we heard Isaiah and then heard St. Paul quoting from that same passage – I can’t stop yet. Because I find it annoying (and even a little bit aggravating) when the lectionary committee makes it all so very neat and when we use the Old Testament reading as a prop for the New. Let me be clear: I have no problem with Paul taking a living word and applying it in a new situation as he does in that letter to the Church in Philippi. That’s just good preaching. 

But when we heard Isaiah 45 today we heard it out of context. Isaiah speaks of every knee bowing and every tongue confessing – and then, bam – from there to the psalm and then right on to St. Paul who says, “every knee should bend to Jesus and every tongue confess Jesus as Lord.”

But when we do that we make the Old Testament ahistorical. We are in danger of forgetting that, to this very day our Jewish neighbors read Isaiah alongside of us not as predictions of a future Jesus, but as a prophetic and living word of the Lord. Our own catechism and ordination vows are very clear that we believe what is necessary for salvation is in both the Old and New Testaments and they each carry weight. So I want to go back to Isaiah and what he’s going on about, if you’ll bear with me a bit longer I think will also discover that there is also a Word of the Lord – a living Word of the Lord, for us here as well. Not just a pointer.

But to hear that Word we need to go back five chapters to the opening words of Second Isaiah. Remember how, in Isaiah 40, the whole thing shifts because we hear glad tidings (good news!) about going home after decades of Babylonian exile? We hear words of comfort that most of us probably cannot hear apart from the music of George Frederick Handel: comfort, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem.

We need comfortable words like these. Gosh do we need them in these dangerous turbulent times we are living through. We need the mind of Christ, but we also need hope. Not empty promises. Not denial. Not wishful thinking. But words of hope that are rooted in the living God, the one who delivers us again and again and again from big and little exiles, the self-imposed ones and the other-imposed ones. The God who calls us home and who, in Isaiah 40, promises us that we shall not grow weary, but shall renew our strength; and mount up with wings like an eagle, and shall run and not grow weary and walk and not faint.

We do need that, don’t we? In Ashfield. In Springfield. In Worcester. In Washington, DC. In the Middle East. I need it. My office at 37 Chestnut Street is just up the hall from Vicki’s and I know she knows this. Some days for me just to see her smiling face is a sign of hope and of glad tidings. And I know it is here, too.

The world is a mess and a lot of the institutions meant to help us deal with that mess are falling apart, including the Church. So it’s easy to feel weary and that’s why it is so good for us to be together, with the sweet, sweet, spirit that is in this place right now. And for us to remember with Second Isaiah that everything will wither like the grass. Even us. But God is still God and God does not grow weary. And God does not faint.

And then, in the midst of all these glad tidings, in chapter forty-four of Isaiah, we hear how God is going to do this. God is going to use Cyrus. Of Persia. (That’s Iran for those who don’t know Biblical geography.) God is going to make Cyrus of Iran into God’s…wait for it, “anointed.” In Hebrew that’s messiah. In Greek it’s Christos.

Say what?  

Isaiah suggests that God can use even a Persian king, a goyim, as a willing or even unwilling co-conspirator. Because God has the whole world in Her hands, and God can do whatever She wants.
Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you in the womb: I am the Lord, who made all things and who alone stretched out the heavens, who by myself spread out the earth; who frustrates the omens of liars, and makes fools of diviners, who turns back the wise, and makes their knowledge foolish; who confirms the word of his servant and fulfills the prediction of his messengers; who says of Jerusalem, “It shall be inhabited” and of the cities of Judah, “They shall be rebuilt, and I will raise up their ruins” who says to the deep, “Be dry – I will dry up your rivers” – who says of Cyrus, “He is my shepherd, and he shall carry out all my purpose… (Isaiah 44:24-28)
Do you all know that prayer that has become popular from Teresa of Avila, about how God has no body but ours and no hands and no feet? Only ours! I’ll admit to you, I struggle with that theology every time I hear that prayer, because it leaves me a little bit hopeless. I know: who am I to argue with Teresa of Avila? I know: we are the Body of Christ and living members of that Body and to that I say, amen. Yes we are hands and feet and all the rest.

But it’s the only language that troubles me. God has no body but ours? That’s the overreach, I think, at least to the God of Second Isaiah, who is a bit like the little red hen, this God who says “even when you forget that you are my hands and my feet – hold my beer, I’ve got this.” And I’ll even use Cyrus of Iran to get it done, if that's what it takes.

Now I’m close to the end, I promise and I’ve now made my way back to Isaiah 45. But if your mind has wondered, the point I’m trying to make (which I think has everything to do with what we are here for today) is that when we let God be God we are free to do the work that God has given us to do, in this place, at this time. We can get clearer on what is our work, our purpose, our mission.

In the verses immediately preceding those we read today, here is what the Lord says (or at least what Second Isaiah imagines the Lord saying):

·  I will go
·  I will break
·  I will level
·  I will give
·  I call you
·  I surname you
·  I am the Lord – there is no other
·  I form light 
·  I create darkness
·  I do it all…and I’ll use Cyrus of Persia if that’s what it takes to get you home

My friends, in Christ, I might just be working at becoming an old curmudgeon priest and maybe I should have just quit with Philippians. But I hear good news and glad tidings in these four or five chapters of Second Isaiah which take a little longer to wade through because I need for God to be God. I need for God to be God so that I don’t try to carry the whole world on my shoulders. I need God to be God, so that Vicki Ix isn’t tempted to carry the whole world on her shoulders. We can and we should and we must all use these hands and feet and bodies we’ve been given to do the work God has given us to do.

But we are like the grass. We wither and fade away. So we really do need to take the long view… And we need to remember that we are not alone. And this is what I want to say to you, my sister Vicki, Vicar of Ashfield, Massachusetts. And to Gosia and to Sue and Susan and to all the good people God has gathered here to be the Church. Be the Church. For the love of God, be the Church and take help wherever you can get it, from the neighbors. (Whether or not they bend the knee to Jesus.)

Be light, and salt, and yeast in this little slice of God’s good earth. Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture together and then become not only hearers, but doers of that Word. Break the bread, and share the cup and remember that we are one in Christ no matter how much effort is put into dividing us. You don’t have to do it all. You can’t do it all. But you are free to respond with the gifts you have to serve and to love. Because as Bill Coffin once put it, the world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.  

My dear sister, Vicar Vicki: parish ministry can be a lonely vocation, but you are not alone here. And yours are not the only hands and the only feet that God has in this place. You don’t need to die on a cross to do this work; that job is taken. And the clearer we get on that, with God’s help, the greater clarity we get on what is in fact uniquely ours to do for the sake of this world, and in response to the love of God made known to us in Jesus. Be the Church!

In the name of the living God, the God of Jesus, to whom our knees do indeed bend and whom we do indeed confess as Lord of all. Amen.