Saturday, December 15, 2018

At the Ordination of Ann Scannell

I am honored to be asked to preach today at the ordination of Ann Scannell to the transitional diaconate, at All Saints Church in Worcester. My sermon text is Jeremiah 4:1-10

Ann: you have publicly declared before God, your bishop, and this assembly that “you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God and that they do contain all things necessary to salvation.”

Bold move! In a few minutes there will be more questions and answers and you will be given a Bible “as a sign of your authority to proclaim God’s Word.”

Please don’t forget this pledge and this sign, and use that Bible! It is so easy to become complacent about this. Yet it is foundational for all the rest of ministry. There will be enormous pressures on your time as a pastor which will make it tempting to convince yourself (or to be convinced by others) that you don’t have time for prayer and study. When that happens, preaching gets very thin very quickly. So make the time to keep reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. Keep first things first.

Here is why: if you don’t do that, it will quickly become way too easy to substitute your own opinions and cute stories and personal faith journey for God’s Word. (Or even worse, to steal somebody else’s opinions, cute stories, or faith journey off the internet!) As you read that Bible, don’t forget what you learned about it at Yale-Berkeley. But keep pushing beyond that, because as great as that institution is, seminaries (all of them, I think) tend to prepare us for the Church that was, not the one is that is always emerging as the new thing that God is doing in the world.

As you enter into the various worlds of the Bible, be willing to be changed as your own ideologies are framed and re-framed in that encounter with the living Word of God. Pray the Daily Office or use the Bible challenge. Become part of a lectionary group with people who will hold you accountable and who have the ability to persuade you when you are wrong. Because, to be clear, when the bishop lays his hands on you today, it will not make you infallible. Offer Bible studies for your parishioners because the best way to be a life-long learner is to teach. The Bible means to gather around it communities that are willing to be transformed as we hear a Word of the Lord addressed to us.

There are no doubt other ways to define “success” in ministry and to make sure your HAC goes up. But I know of no way to be faithful to the risen Christ as an ordained person if you are not continuing to wrestle with Holy Scripture and finding there a word that points you and your community to the Word-made-flesh: Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ, alpha and omega. God with us. In the end, even in a sacramental denomination such as ours, we are people of the Book. I know that, God willing and the people consenting, you will be ordained to the priesthood soon enough. But the preacher at your priestly ordination can focus on Baptism and Eucharist! For today, I want to stick with this aspect of this call to preach.

As preachers – lay preachers, deacons, priests and bishops—we have these ancient scrolls entrusted to us and we are given authority to stand with God’s people and to share the good news that comes from the whole canon. You did not pledge a moment ago to be a Marcionite who believes that Luke’s Gospel and Paul’s epistles contain all things necessary to salvation! (And to those without an MDiv from Yale, you can Google Marcion after this sermon!)  Pray the Psalms, including the ones we never pray in worship. Read Lamentations. Read Job and Ecclesiastes. Read Esther and Daniel and Amos and Micah. If they were good enough for Jesus, they will be good enough for the people you are called to serve. Our great privilege and responsibility is to allow these texts to come to life in a time and place that is woefully ignorant of the richness of the canon of Scripture.

So let me try to practice what I preach, which I’ve often found is the hardest part of ministry. I want to spend my remaining time on this call narrative from the scroll of the prophet Jeremiah. It is very clear in the first three verses that God is addressing a particular person in a particular time and in a particular place.

…and so the Word of Yahweh comes to Jeremiah, the son of Hilkiah. Jeremiah is a “PK” (a priest’s kid) in Anathoth, in the days of King Josiah, son of Amon of Judah. In the thirteenth year of his reign.

This is a standard Biblical call narrative. The pattern is the same one as for Moses and Isaiah, for Hannah and Mary. Perhaps you recognize something of your own call in this pattern as well. It begins with divine initiative, which is met with human resistance. So God says to Jeremiah: “before you were even born I knew you, and I appointed you to be a prophet to the nations.” To which Jeremiah replies: “But I’m only a boy and I’m afraid of public speaking and surely there must be someone else...” Anybody else? Buehler? Beuhler?

That’s the pattern. God calls and God’s people almost always say, “no thank you. Surely there must be someone more qualified.” But God is persistent. You may recognize that pattern in your own life as well. God responds with rebuke and reassurance: rebuke (“don’t say you’re just a boy!”) and reassurance (“don’t be afraid, I’ll be with you!) And then God puts out his hand and touches Jeremiah’s mouth and commissions him as a transitional deacon in the Episcopal Church. (Just trying to make sure you are all still with me here!)

The lectionary committee, in their infinite wisdom, chose to stop there in the suggested reading for the day, at verse nine. We get Jeremiah commissioned and that is apparently the end of the story and enough to ordain a deacon: the Word of the Lord, thanks be to God. Good luck out there! But this is exactly why we need to read the Bible or at the very least, the verses on either side of the texts the lectionary committee gives us for days like this. The lectionary committee very often cut out the best and most interesting parts. I think that this is one of those occasions when they just plain get it wrong and that can lead us to bad theology of what our several callings are about. Because they leave us hanging in mid-air.  

Here’s the thing: Jeremiah is commissioned to do something. He isn’t ordained just so he can wear the funny clothes. He is ordained to share with God in God’s work in the world, in his world six centuries before Messiah is born, among real people with real questions and real hurts and real dreams. Vocation is about a call to do something in a particular place at a particular time. That is why I asked that we extend today’s reading just one more verse, to include verse ten. It really didn’t add that much time to this liturgy. What is that work to which Jeremiah is called? Walter Brueggemann says that Jeremiah is “reflective of and responsive to the historical crisis of the last days of Judah, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 587 BCE.” That’s quite specific. (And harder to Google.)

Jeremiah is commissioned to help God’s people deal with tremendous loss and then enter into the Babylonian exile. The old order will be dismantled and a crisis of faith will follow.  It isn’t pretty. It is not the last word, either. The thing is, it will take decades before another prophet (Second Isaiah) comes along to speak a word of comfort, a word about new possibilities and a highway through the desert and homecoming. The words that Jeremiah must speak are far less comfortable words. His mission statement is found in that tenth verse of the first chapter and it’s just six verbs that come up again and again and again in the rest of the scroll, 51 more chapters. Jeremiah is commissioned “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” It’s the best kind of mission statement because it is short and to the point and oriented toward action. 67% of Jeremiah’s time will be spent on deconstructing the old order. It seems that has to happen before anything new can happen. And even then, maybe the best Jeremiah will be able to do is to plant some seeds and build a little on the foundation. Like us, he’s going to have to take the long view. He won’t get to see homecoming – in a way similar to Moses who doesn’t get to enter the Promised Land.

Jeremiah is given the hard task of helping people deal with loss and grief as the Babylonian army comes marching into Jerusalem and the temple comes crashing down. They will be distraught. And they will be angry at God and at those who claim to work for God. They will feel betrayed. They will be bitterly divided. And they will feel like they have no future. Is this sounding like some vestry meetings? Are you all in?

Maybe this is why the lectionary committee left off that last verse. Because if they told us what we were in for, we might run away faster than Jonah. With all endings come new beginnings, however. But it takes time and focus and patience and grit. Barbara Brown Taylor put it this way in “Leaving Church.”

The way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it. We proclaim the priesthood of all believers while we continue living with hierarchical clergy, liturgy, and architecture. We follow a Lord who challenged the religious and political institutions of his time while we fund and defend our own. We speak and sing of divine transformation while we do everything in our power to maintain our equilibrium. If redeeming things continue to happen to us in spite of these deep contradictions in our life together, then I think that is because God is faithful even when we are not.

My sister: God is faithful, even when we are not. Hold onto that and let it be your guiding star in the journey that wise women and wise men are called to in this time and place. The work that you are called to is not in the thirteenth year of the reign of King Josiah but in the third year of the reign of President Donald. The Episcopal Church in 2013 is not exactly the same as the Jewish people in Babylonian captivity. Most of our “temples” are still intact. Unfortunately we have lots of buildings that worked for our mission in the nineteenth century that are less helpful in the twenty-first. We need some imagination to make the connections from then to now. But it doesn’t take much to say this much: after the party today, the work will be hard. And it ain’t all planting and building.

What would Church look like if we lived as if we were truly prepared to lose our lives in order to find them?  Even to lose the Church in order to find it again? We are tempted to think that our job as Christian leaders is to somehow keep on trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I know I sometimes spend a lot of time in my job trying to do just that. Trust me, that temptation only becomes greater as you become more invested in the structures that we have in place for your livelihood. On the whole, bishops and priests and deacons and laity spend enormous energy trying to hold it all together. But what if you are being ordained today, here and now, to help God’s people to grieve loss when things change and be open to the new thing that God is doing? What if 2/3 of your job will be about deconstructing, in order to then do some planting and building? Think of all those times Jesus talks about pruning in the New Testament. Or about new wine and old wineskins. Because those old ways, those old patterns, those old structures can keep us from seeing and hearing the new thing God is doing.

Very few people will applaud that work when you do it because it is hard work and these are difficult times and nostalgia makes us want to look backwards rather than forward. And to be clear, I am not suggesting that the first week you arrive at the Church of the Good Shepherd in Clinton that you tell them you are there to pluck up and pull down and destroy and overthrow all of the sacred cows in that parish that are not in line with God’s purposes. God help you. And God help them!

But maybe our work is a little bit easier than that. Maybe we don’t have to be Jeremiah. Maybe we just have to remind people about who Jeremiah was and that there is a Word of the Lord for us, waiting to be discovered in new ways by God’s people.

Together. Find allies, ordained and lay, inside and outside of your congregation. Stand with God’s people and make room in your congregation for the prophets like Jeremiah to be heard. You can do that, Ann. We need for you to do that and I know you are up to the task that lies before us. I have known it for as long as I’ve known you. You are a humble, faithful, compassionate, honest, hard-working follower of Jesus. I know that the divine initiative has been at work in your life from the time when you were in your mother’s womb. And that this call is “of God” and that it has been tested along the way by the Church and by life experience. So don’t settle for less than faithfulness, even if faithfulness doesn’t always bring success. I know that along the way, like Jeremiah, you have at times found yourself resisting that call. Maybe somewhere along the line as God called, you even said, “But I’m only a girl.” More likely, somebody else told you that. But we have all heard God’s clear response and encouragement.

Call, resistance, rebuke and reassurance. That is the pattern that brings us to this day. Keep responding to that call, and living into these vows you take today. Remember that God is faithful, even when we are not. Keep putting your trust there, and show the people whom you are called to serve alongside of the same. And let them show you, too. And then - together - do the work God has given you and given us to do in this time and place. 

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