June 22, 2017

Living the long obedience – an ordination sermon

Sermon for Ordinations
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
June 17, 2017
Grace Episcopal Cathedral, Topeka, Kansas

In the name of God and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd,
 Our just and true North Star,
 The Standard-Bearer and Perfecter of Our Faith: Amen.

To Clay, Bianca, Diane, Katie, Mike, Mark, and Greg; and to their spouses and families;
 To Bishop Smith, graciously serving this day;
 To Dean Lipscomb and Grace Cathedral, our hosts;
 To all the Clergy and all the People, whatever your age, whatever your station;
 To the good people of this diocese and beyond;
 To our friends and partners in ministry
 Showing forth all the wild manifestations
   Of the deep and abiding love of God:
     Welcome, and Greetings, and Peace, in Christ’s holy name and through his work.

This day and this time have been set aside
 For unapologetic and unabashed ordinations to the diaconate and to the priesthood –
 Set aside, because these people have been set aside –
 Set aside for particular and curious forms of ministry
   That have come to be defined and shaped by centuries
     Of contemplation, prayer, and sweat;
   By martyrs’ blood and workers’ toil, by the councils of the church, and by Holy Scripture.
For the mission of God, for the compelling call of Christ, and for you,
 These have worked and studied and written and prayed and wrestled with angels.
All of them, for a period of years.

They have submitted to the hammer and chisel of the ordination process, the endless God-talk,
 The councils and committees and paperwork,
 Relentless testing by examiners of all kinds.
And it comes to this: a warm Saturday morning in June,
 And all that stands between you and the hands of Bishop Smith on your heads
 ... Is a preacher from Oklahoma with a Southern Baptist background ...

We have heard just now the words of Christ as he has enjoined his friends
 To follow these simple-but-almost-impossible instructions:
 The greatest among you is the one who has the greatest humility, he says;
   The one who serves the table is greater than the one who sits at the table.
 And I, Jesus says – I am one such servant.
 And so, he seems to say; the implication seems to be – If we would be like him, ...

For as much as we try to follow him, Jesus will flummox us
 By consistently turning the world upside-down
   And reversing every expectation people have about what it means to be fulfilled.
And this is what awaits these blessed followers of Jesus:
 Bitter disappointment – a blow to the ego every day –
 The dismantling of the false-self system,
   And – and! – the joy of following Our Lord to the cross, and the grave, and beyond.

For proof, I beg you to consult the prophet Isaiah.
I don’t know why we don’t keep on reading from chapter 6 at these Ordinations: it’s a disservice.
Well, I do know why, but I think it’d be instructive this morning to do it anyway.
“In the year that King Uzziah died,” et cetera, et cetera;
   One, two, skip a few;
     “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
       ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
We heard that part. We always hear that part. Beautiful. All set. Done and done.
No? No. There are clarifying instructions, Isaiah:
It contines: And [Isaiah] said, “Here am I; send me!”
 And [the Lord] said, “Go and say to this people:
 ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’
 ‘Make the mind of this people dull, [Isaiah], and stop their ears, and shut their eyes,
     So that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears,
       And comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Then [Isaiah] said, “How long, O Lord?” [Good question!] And [the Lord] said:
 “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people,
     And the land is utterly desolate;
   Until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
 “Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a [tree]
     Whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.”

Isaiah has just been caught up in the majesty of the moment.
He has volunteered to bring the glorious word of the Lord
 About a nation in need of righteous judgment and restoration.
Sounds great! His tongue is cleansed; he’s ready to go.
But, as it turns out, his full commission is –
 Go and speak this word, and keep on speaking it until the people can’t hear it anymore;
   And keep on, keep on, Isaiah, ‘til you’re blue in the face, until there’s nothing left to speak to,
     Until the whole thing is as dead as a tree stump;
        And from that dead thing, Isaiah, the seed of something beautiful will be born.

You could think Isaiah’s mission is to facilitate futility – to hasten nothingness into being.
It’s dark, right? But don’t miss the image: the stump is also the seed.

Still, for Isaiah ... what a bummer. It’s a huge let-down!
It’s the old bait-and-switch! He signed up for A and has to do B.
He’s just accepted a lifetime appointment to the lowest place,
 Delivering very good news to those who need to hear it, yes,
   But also, very bad news to those about to be weighed out on the cosmic scales of justice.
He will effectively be waiting tables from now on, and serving – not being served.
And for what?
Only, it seems, to help carve out a little space where the Word of the Lord can take root.
He probably won’t live long enough to even see it happen.
But that just has to be enough ...

At some critical, inevitable moment, expectations will undergo reversal.
Dissatisfaction will come creeping in.
Dissatisfaction with your call can only be tempered by humility –
 Serving from the lowest place, steeped in daily prayer and wide-eyed experience.
Isaiah’s anger and frustration about his place in life
 Will only be leavened by the knowledge that he has been placed on earth to do this work,
   And that just has to be sufficient.
The sacrifice is just part of the deal.
His ministry, and all our ministries, are uniquely cruciform in nature.

So naturally enough, here’s where the ego steps in,
 And gets deeply reactive and anxious, and panics!
This is not what I signed up for! I’ve made a terrible misake! Surely there’s some way out of this!
And Christ-followers will scratch about, searching frantically for a loophole.
Temptations to buck the call will come.

In 2017 especially, there are at least four kinds of temptations or varieties or ways
 To buck the call when the ego rises up – whether or not we do church work.
Let’s remember that when Satan left Jesus at the end of his period of temptation,
 It was “until a more opportune time.”
Perhaps, as fellow followers of Christ, 2017 is our “more opportune time.”
So let’s be bold Episcopalians and call these temptations, Devils.

The first is the Devil of Constant Busyness.
All-time companion of clergy.
Grotesque, looong checklists; emails to respond to; ideas to develop. A never-finished-ness.
Creeping dissatisfaction with whatever place we happen to occupy at the moment:
 Belief that whatever the next place is, surely it’s better than this one.
The lie is that my worth is measured by my output.
To use an ancient theological term, this is baloney.
That’s the Devil of Constant Busyness.

The second devil is the Devil of Instant Competence.
“Yes, I do remember that conversation, and I have an immediate reaction to it!”
“Yes, I have Google in my pocket,
   And no, there’s no excuse for not having all the facts right away,
   As well as all the interpretations of those facts.
   To hell with letting it simmer to make it better;
     To hell with admitting if there’s something we don’t know.”
The lie is that my worth is derived by what I know, with my head –
   What I can recite standing before you right now, all the facts, all at once, all in one place.
This lie is that my worth is not derived
 By who I am, already, simply created, in the sight and in the hands of the Living Lord Jesus.
The Devil of Instant Competence.

The third devil is a Contentment with a Lack of Joy.
God made us, God loves us, God made us to delight in God and for God to delight in us –
 We forget this at our peril, at our own cost.
Life is meant to be lived, not merely trudged through.
When we clergy forget these facts, it turns our ministries colorless.
Banish the lie! Be joyful in the Lord, and not merely a survivor.
The Devil of the Lack of Joy.

The fourth devil, in 2017, is the hardest to name and the slipperiest to conquer.
It is what I’ll call the Devil of Believing Only In My Narrative.
We may preach the evils of the fragmentation and alienation of our society;
 We may believe we are deeply connected to one another in certain ways;
 But in other ways we are all susceptible; we all know this one, only too well.
We may be listening to each other, nodding our heads,
 Trying to get out of God’s way, but it’s hard.
In the end, I’m sorry, but I just know I’m right.
This lie is straightforward, and seductive: I stand to gain nothing from ever being wrong:
 So I’m right because I’m right.
My views are correct because someone backed me up on Twitter;
 I’m right because that magazine article said so; I know I’m on the right side of history;
   My story beats yours, my opinions are better than yours,
     And very soon I’ll set everything straight,
       Or, better yet, just keep it to my self – my unassailable, airtight self,
         Where it can stay clean.
The Devil of Believing Only In My Own Narrative.

O Isaiah, O Prophet of the Most High, are we in the ballpark today?
Were you ever tempted like this?
What, if anything, can be done about it –
 Other than to say: this is our time.
 We fight the temptations we fight. We remain steadfast.
And this is our responsibility until it passes to someone else.
Meanwhile, God gives us what we need to be faithful.

Ordinands, would you stand please? ...

Greg, Mark, Mike, Katie, Diane, Bianca, and Clay:
 Each of you is on the crust of a grand adventure.
My strongest prayer is that you trust daily
 That what God has given you to meet this task will be sufficient;
 That what Christ died to give to each of you, and us, his Church, will not be forgotten.
Banish these devils, these temptations, as the Spirit has given ability;
 Lean on one another and all of us for support;
   Show us something new and wonderful;
     Lead us to new and important understandings of where and why we do this work.
And do all these things with joy, with lightness, with purpose.

God give you strength. Amen.

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