Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Celebrating a New Ministry & the Humility of the Religious

Some of you may recall meeting Earnest Graham at one of our Lenten dinners. He is a priest who at the time was serving at St. John’s Church in Chuckatuck and now is at St. Matthew’s in Chesterfield. Last Wednesday evening they had a wonderful Celebration of New Ministry that was not unlike the one we celebrated together several years ago (although, unlike here, the congregation did not present him with a squirrel trap!).

Worship services always speak to me in some way and this experience was no different. Several years ago, Earnest was identified by the Episcopal Church as a person suitable for priesthood. He was tested and trained in many different ways. Several hundred people weighed in on his fitness prior to ordination. This particular call came about through his own discernment, but also through that of a congregation’s search committee and Vestry, and with consent from the bishop and other diocesan officials. Given all of this, I was struck by the prayer which the liturgy directs a new priest to offer at this service:

“O Lord my God, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof; yet you have called your servant to stand in your house, and to serve at your altar…” (BCP p. 562)

It says something, doesn’t it, that a priest’s new ministry with a congregation begins with the posture of humility. Of all that we might say about our knowledge, our skills, our abilities, and our personal characteristics, what we priests acknowledge to God in the presence of God’s people is our unworthiness. And clearly the priest’s prayer is intended to rub off on all the people of the parish.

You see, it is our plight, as people of deep religious conviction and devotion, to be like the son who said he would go into the field and yet did not go. Jesus offers no insight into why each son moved from “yes” or “no” to the opposite. Rather than get into why, he focuses on the who, on the identity of each son – which group is represented by the son who was unwilling at first and which group is represented by the son who said yes but did nothing. What group said no to God at first? Prostitutes, tax collectors, and other sinners? And what group said yes to God at first? The chief priests and the elders of the people.

It is a story Jesus tells to condemn those who rejected the ministry of John the Baptist. Jesus says he came in the “way of righteousness” but was rejected by the learned and the religious professionals. Jesus does not spell out what he means by “way of righteousness,” but, given John’s ministry, here is something of what it looks like:

 John proclaimed that God is near.

 He taught that God loves everyone.

 He called on every person to repent and be baptized.

Now that doesn’t sound like a very radical message, does it, but for the religious leaders it presented a real challenge. First, they were the ones who best understood God and God’s ways, not John. Who was John to say that God is near? Second, they did not accept that God loved everyone. They believed that God loved them and hated sinners. And finally, they believed they had no need to repent since they were not sinners. Any suggestion otherwise was deeply offensive to them and an affront almost beyond our imagining.

And while the world needs people to bear our religious tradition and elders to carry forward the wisdom and heritage of the past, if we take Jesus seriously we have to acknowledge there is something inherent in these roles that can insulate us from recognizing God’s dream for all people. While it is vital that we know the Holy Scriptures, the history of biblical interpretation is littered with examples of religious people holding on to incorrect understandings and misusing the word of God. And while it is important that we carry forward the tradition we have been given, we must always guard against protecting zealously against needed and necessary reforms. And while practicing the faith through such habits as regular worship, tithing, and acts of charity is the duty of all Christians, we must never allow these outward manifestations to be a substitute for inner devotion to God. All of this and more is embodied by the priest’s prayer at the beginning of a new ministry with a congregation: “I am not worthy to have you come under my roof.” We members of the congregation who listen in on the prayer may want to add under our breath, “me either.”

One of the dangers of our beautiful liturgy is that in can lead us to say things lightly that carry great weight. For example, at every baptism on behalf of God and the Church I ask the parents and godparents these questions:

 Will you be responsible for seeing that the child you present is brought up in the Christian faith and life?

 Will you by your prayers and witness help this child to grow into the full stature of Christ?

How easy is it to parrot the words on the page in response, “I will, with God’s help”? And what about those questions we are all asked as we renew our own baptismal covenant?

 Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?

 Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

 Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

 Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

 Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?

These elegant words and high ideals ring in my ear as I hear the story of Jesus about the father who said to his son, “Go and work in the vineyard” and the son replied “I will,” but did not go. If these promises and vows represent the work we are to do in God’s vineyard then let me be the first to confess that my labor can be pretty shoddy at times.

I like what Jesus says to the religious leaders and elders as the parable ends. He does not condemn them and say they will never get into heaven. What he says is that tax collectors and prostitutes will be going in ahead of them. Now I don’t take this literally as if it suggests God is going to pick sinners for his kickball team before he picks religious types. I take it more metaphorically in that I hear it saying there are “sinners” out there who are closer to God than we are, even though we see ourselves as being devoted to God. There are people who do not look like church types whose heart and life somehow live into the baptismal vows in ways more faithful than you and I.
The priest’s prayer at the Celebration of New Ministry continues with these petitions:

 Fill my memory with the record of your mighty works;

 Enlighten my understanding with the light of your Holy Spirit;

 May all the desires on my heart and will center on what you would have me do.

Only after this prayer is offered does the Bishop say to the congregation, “Greet your new Rector.” And all of it reminds us that we walk a slippery sloop when we try to do things for God because each of us is called to allow God to work out the plan of salvation through us. Will you leave here this morning and allow God’s Spirit to live and move in you in such a way?