The following sermon was given this morning at the annual Renewal of Vows and Blessing of Oils at Christ Church Cathedral.
Welcome. Thank you for taking time away from sermon prep, acolyte wrangling, bulletin proof-reading, pastoral care and answering questions about when IS the Easter Service, to come together in mutual support of one another in ministry.
Welcome Lutherans and UCC. Some of our liturgical language may be different, but the mission is the same. Jesus’ mission of mercy, compassion and hope. When so much in our world seems to be coming apart, we are coming together. I am grateful for you.
Renewal of vows makes me think of Holy Week 1998. Betsy and I and our very young children were at Holy Innocents in Highland Falls New York and I was the Episcopal West Point chaplain. We had a Holy Week evening service in the church with only the candles on the altar for our light. At that service most of the congregation were West Point cadets and we all stood around the altar for the Eucharistic Prayer. Grace, four years old, stood next to me at the altar, her chin level with the top of the altar. She was captivated by the scene. For her it was magical and mystical. Looking out at everyone, looking at me leading prayer. Afterwards Betsy asked Grace “Did you like being up at the altar with daddy?” To which Grace responded “Oh yes, mommy. I loved it. I felt just like a pwiest!” Betsy said, “Would you like to be a priest someday?” Grace was very clear in her answer. “Oh no, mommy. I want to stack the groceries at the supermarket. That’s a cool job.”
A humbling reminder on the day we renew our vows as ordained leaders in the church.
Bishops get veteran bishops for coaches. A question my coach would ask me in every session was “why did your diocese choose you?” It is a way of getting clarity and setting priorities. I think it was because I said a lot about social justice and about trying new things in ministry. 50 new things even if 49 fail. And there is one more. After the election, one of our church leaders said to me: “You know, bishop, no one in my parish was going to vote for you when the slate was announced. You were the only candidate with a doctorate (in ministry) and we knew we didn’t need some academic lecturing us in something abstract when the needs are so real.” Now that is not my perspective but it was his. And then he added “But when we went to the walk-abouts and you were asked questions, you would leave the stage and come into the middle aisle and answer the questions from there. From where the people were. That night in the parking lot, we all decided we were voting for you.”
Notice it wasn’t because of what I said. No great insights or pearls of wisdom changed their minds. It was being in the midst of the people. Going to where they are.
That’s what I will be praying about today when I renew my vows.
How about you? Priest, minister, deacon. The Holy Spirit, working through so many people around you and through sponsoring parishes and commissions on ministry, called you. Maybe it was a few years ago or maybe it was forty. Why did they choose you? In all your quirky uniqueness. Why did they choose you?
And what made you say yes?
While you are thinking about that, let me provide a structure for your particular answer.
Mariann Budde is the Bishop of Washington D.C. She points out how often the Bible contains a “so that” statement. Here are a few examples:
Matthew 5:16 Let your light shine before others, SO THAT they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
Romans 12:2 Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, SO THAT you may discern what is the will of God- what is good and acceptable and perfect.
John 3:16 For God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, SO THAT everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.
I was ordained so that… What comes next? I hope you answer that with something spectacular. Something worth giving your life to.
A couple of weeks ago, I put that question to a few of our clergy in an email. Here is what they said:
- I will renew my vows SO THAT I can offer my spiritual gifts to a community of faith that has richly blessed me and that helps me to grow in ways that matter.
- I will renew my vows SO THAT I might share and testify to the love that saved me and made me and holds me.
- I will renew my vows SO THAT the hope and justice of God in Christ would be made known.
We were called by God, loved by Christ SO THAT we may understand the power of His Resurrection.
I was ordained SO THAT I could help spread the light and hope of Christ.
What is it for you? I was ordained so that…
While you think of your answers I’m going to ramble on about a couple of other things.
Whatever that great, holy, Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit inspired statement is for you, know that to get there we need to cultivate resilience, and persistence, or what some in leadership circles are referring to as “grit.”
Here’s another quote from the wise Mariann Budde. It is a long quote and we all know you should never use a long quote in a sermon. So don’t tell the bishop.
“Here’s why we need resilience. Because we are called to lead others from where they are now, as a body, to where God is calling us, a preferred future or a necessary sacrifice. That process, by definition, invokes resistance. Resistance is not all bad; nor is all change good. As a result, those of us called to lead have no choice but to live and move and have our being in what might be called ‘the messy middle.’ That place where nothing is clear, where what you thought was a God inspired idea goes nowhere, where those who called you to lead are now resisting you with everything they’ve got, and it occurs to you that working as a barista in your neighborhood coffee shop seems like a more fruitful place for ministry than the church.” Or you long to stack the groceries in the supermarket.
When that happens, not if, when that happens, have friends, deep friends, to confide in. And a disciplined prayer life. And maybe some scripture verses that can serve as a mantra. Like Paul’s in the second letter to that conflicted, confused, hungry for the Spirit community in Corinth. “Since it is God’s mercy that we are engaged in ministry, we do not lose heart.” Or in Genesis, Jacob wrestling with that angel “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
Now for a few minutes on today’s gospel. I won’t be long. I know not all the Holy Week bulletins are done.
I chose the Gospel about what Walter Brueggemann calls “the riot in the Temple.” I chose it because I believe it is a pivotal part of the Holy Week story and it gets overlooked. And I think it is a key story for the ministry we share.
I just learned a few days ago that the Cathedral in Connecticut is doing something new and meaningful with this story. On Palm Sunday we begin with the triumphant entry into Jerusalem and then at the time for the Gospel we read the Passion which continues the story beginning with the Last Supper. We go from the hosannas of the crowd to Jesus agonizing over his impending death. We leave out a key part of the story that explains this very severe change of tone. The riot in the temple. Here’s what Connecticut is doing. The usual opening of the service with the entry into Jerusalem. Then at the time of the Gospel the story of the riot in the Temple is read. And then at the very end of the service, the Passion is read and the congregation leaves in silence to continue their Holy Week journey.
This story suffers too from a superficial understanding. How often has this passage been used as “you see Jesus is human like us. He got angry.” The same way the Martha and Mary story gets reduced to “we all need to balance out our busy Martha lives with Mary-like contemplation.” We interpret the verse this way SO THAT we don’t have to acknowledge the social revolution Jesus began in bringing women into the male-only circle of religious thinkers.
This passage has meanings so deep that the four evangelists take three approaches to it. Mark and Luke just tell it and then go right away to the chief priests looking for a way to kill him. John uses it to illustrate the scripture “Zeal for your house will consume me.” And an early reference to the Resurrection. Only Matthew follows the Temple cleansing with healing stories. Throwing over tables creating a space for healing. I will come back to that. But the heart of it was an unjust sacrificial system that made demands on the poor. In words and with very clear action, Jesus drew our attention to a societal problem and acted on it. Jesus didn’t just offer thoughts and prayers. He overthrew tables. He disrupted the system. A system that many believed to be sacred.
On this day in which we renew our vows, I will ask another question: Do you ever feel like throwing over some tables?
Here’s some I feel like throwing over.
- The public health crisis of gun violence. 97 people a day die from gun violence in the United States. Many from suicide. Several children every day from accidents. Many in our urban communities as victims of what Michael Curry calls the “Unholy Trinity” of racism, poverty and guns. And some in our growing number of mass shootings – the ones that get our attention. America loves her guns and her guns are killing her loved ones. Many loved the theology and culture and economy of the Temple sacrifices but that did not stop Jesus.
- Then there is crisis of creation around climate change. I could quote our own Margaret Bullitt Jonas on this but in the spirit of ecumenism I will go with Pope Francis: “Human induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity. In this core moral space, the world’s religions play a very vital role.” If we commit to passing the faith down from generation to generation then we have to commit to a sustainable island home for future generations.
- The plight of immigrants in our immigrant nation. Children in cages at the border. Lucio Perez in sanctuary at the UCC Church in Amherst for a year and a half, forced to live apart from his wife and their four children. What would the Jesus we follow- the table over thrower- tell us to do about that?
In the ordination of a bishop in the Episcopal Church, eight questions are asked and answered. One is “will you shake up the conscience of your people?” Another is “will you defend those who have no helper?”
My actions are never closely adequate to the depth and expanse of the question. Thank you for all the times you have inspired me in this work of overturning tables.
And we do this not just as a voice crying out in the wilderness, not out of righteous anger, but as Matthew makes clear, SO THAT healing becomes possible. The royal wedding preacher says “WE are the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is for so many into the dream God has for it.”
On this day, as we renew our ordination vows, let’s return to that wisdom of Paul. Since it is God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. And as my go-to-theologian Walter Brueggemann adds “Do not lose heart. God has not quit, and will not until our joy is reflective of God’s own.”