(Sermon preached at a Celebration of Ministry, St. Christopher's by-the-Sea, Portland, TX, on December 1, 2009, where -- according to the custom of the diocese -- the just-installed Rector is invited to preach.)
Celebration of Ministry
Psalms: 133 and 134
Epistle: Romans 12:1-18
Gospel: John 15:9-16
This is a blessing. Look at you! Look around. Strange faces. Friends, family. Can I say you clean up well? Together, joined in praise. Bishop Reed, clergy. Of course, our St. Christopher’s family. The prayers of countless others with us. Thank you for being here, for your presence, your prayers.
It says on this program that we are here tonight to celebrate a ministry. Let’s do it! But whose? How exactly does this work? Are you celebrating my ministry -- am I celebrating yours? Though we both have our separate histories, do we begin on this evening one new ministry? Many of you, when I first got here, asked me some version of “what do I call you?” I had two thoughts at the time: number one, just don’t call me John, and two, I hope they don’t call me the minister. It has been my humbling privilege to meet you as ministers; to come alongside, at your invitation, to serve you in ministry. Tonight, to be with my ministers, is all joy and blessing.
When you wake up in the morning, remember God and the life to which he calls you, as ministers, where do you start? How does one succinctly describe the business, the mission, that we pray, as Christians, to be about? What is the heart of the life we Christians pursue?
I first took these questions seriously at Wheaton College, where I studied economics alongside friends who would have rather died than do the same -- bible majors, physics, communications majors, and even one very attractive Spanish major who later changed my life when she said “yes”. Studying with this hodgepodge collection of friends, it was hard to believe on some days that we shared a common calling -- a common ministry. It had so many varied expressions, different directions. Sometimes our studies kept us from seeing each other at all over the course of a week. We were a mix of missionaries and musicians and future mortgage brokers. What did it mean that we shared of one life?
The college’s answer and reminder to that question was a simple phrase -- the phrase on which the institution was built: For Christ and His Kingdom. For Christ and His Kingdom. A sort of shorthand for the summary of the Law: love of God and love of neighbor. For Christ and His Kingdom: Naming both the One who calls and the task to which he calls, namely life with those he loves. (Hear the echo of our gospel read this evening: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”)
Some years later, I found myself, with Rebekah, at another strange church, this time in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We didn’t know a soul, save for the two brave friends who made the trip out east with us. The priest, when he welcomed us, used words that would become familiar and true: he prayed that Holy Family would be for us and all who came to that church a place of challenge and rest. Challenge and rest. I think of St. Augustine’s confession that his heart is ever restless until it finds its rest in God. But what could it mean for that rest to also serve as constant challenge? And why in God’s Name would I pray for that?
Still later, found with strangers, again, this time at Duke’s Divinity School: eight or so of us, the first class of the newly founded Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies, folks from all over, and in a time when you didn’t have to be from all over to wonder what you might possibly have in common with another Anglican. This time, the reminder, the motto, was a picture: Roots down, walls down.
For Christ and His Kingdom.
To be a place of challenge and rest.
Roots down, walls down.
Three threads; one fabric. I wonder, have you caught it? In each one is present the mystery of communion with God: namely that he stubbornly insists on including the others. The mystery of communion with God: that he stubbornly insists on including the others. Confession time. I like Christ, rest, and roots. Not as keen on Kingdom, challenge, and the loss of security and space that walls down represents. Still, one may have confidence that the Gospel is faithfully proclaimed and pursued where these seemingly distinct aims are held up together; where loving God is not separable from loving that which God loves.
In the most real sense, then, you and I celebrate one ministry because there’s only one ministry to share: that of receiving and witnessing the love of the Triune God -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- for his church and the world. Or as St. Paul better put it: we who are many are one, because we share of one bread.
I want to tell you, finally, about a fourth strange group of people: the odd mix of Search Committee and Vestry who helped discern God’s call to us in this place.
We met for the interview, here, in the Eucharist. Yvette and Mike Sullivan, at their home, graciously hosted the next leg of conversation where, over dinner, we prodded, explored hopes, wonders, and vision; I wondered what calling Rebekah and I might share with these strangers. I didn’t even fish!
So I listened, and prayed: Lord, what do they have in common? What is the heart of the life these Christians pursue?
“We are the Church,” you told me. “We cherish the reach of our small groups. We strive to reach out; to bring Christ to the world.” “We want opportunities for spiritual growth, spiritual mentorship with one another.” One of you said that “we want a pastor who’s OK making mistakes,” and sensing an opening, I quickly assured you I was good at making mistakes, but your deeper longing for the life not of right answers but of grace was conveyed. Then the words came. The words came like holy whispers of the Spirit; and it’s important, I think, that the words came from you:
Deeper, wider. Deeper, wider. That’s what I heard when I listened to you.
Deeper, the desire for every person who seeks God in this place to be able to pursue that relationship as deep, as far, as she has will to engage; knowing that depth like this requires the help of holy friends. Wider, the desire for us in this place to reach out, invite, stretch in grace, so that the world might know the same grace by which we pray to live.
Deeper, wider, ministering from the deep well of Christ’s love for us and for others.
For Christ and his Kingdom.
To be a place of challenge and rest.
Roots down, walls down.
Deeper and wider.
The resonance of your call with the two-part harmony of the faith I had come to know and enjoy was then -- and is now! -- resounding and clear. Yes, it is challenge, but this is the challenge for which you and I prayed! This challenge is the heart of what has brought us together. It’s the image of St Christopher bearing the child through the waters, knowing in the waters the presence of Christ. You and I, too, brought together by waters, the Spirit-drenched waters of baptism by which, with God’s help, we will continue to sing our new song: Deeper and wider. Into Christ; with the stranger; Alleluia!; forever. Deeper and wider, together, in the love of our God.
Friends, this calls for celebration.