Sermon for Clergy and Spouses in the Diocese of Long Island

Lessons for Ministry II
September 18, 2009

The staff at the Church Center has spent much of the time since General Convention responding to the major budget cuts that happened there. It’s been a time of grief and pain as staff have departed and the reality that some programs will end or have to be done in radically different ways. But it’s also been a time of enormous grace and creative energy. We gathered for the first three days this week to look toward the future. It was a time of deep listening – both to the yearning of the Church as a whole and to the immensely faithful will of the remaining staff to work together in new and creative ways.

That work is about the kind of listening that challenges Eli and Samuel. Samuel is awakened in the middle of the night by something he doesn’t fully understand. I’m sure that such things never occupy anybody here! Whether it’s budget challenges or personnel issues or strategic planning or the next sermon you’re struggling to craft, yes, indeed, we have reason to “bless the Lord who gives counsel; my heart teaches me night after night” [Ps 16:7]. But Samuel can’t interpret the counsel he’s receiving – he needs the help of Eli, who doesn’t get it immediately either.

None of us understands in isolation – we need the larger community to discern not just the voice of God, but what that voice is saying. This diocese is beginning a new chapter, and this weekend marks a piece of the transition. The task ahead is to stay in relationship, to build the kind of discerning community that will more readily hear the leading of the spirit. 1Samuel says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days and visions infrequent. I’m not sure that the word of the Lord and spirited visions are any more common today – but to those who attend, who wait on God, and listen with every fibre of their being, even with sleepy ears in the middle of the night, they do come.

How ready are we all to listen to each other? If God hears the cries of wanderers in the wilderness, that might be a good place to start. The hungry and hurting world around us is desperate for a word of good news. That’s where Jesus started – good news to the poor, healing to the sick, the word of God to those who sought to learn, and all of it filled with compassion.

That work, that ministry, needs us all. Ephesians starts with ministries that the church has often reserved to the ordained: apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, even teachers – but none of those is solely the bailiwick of deacons or priests or bishops. It’s the last role in the list that is perhaps most important – to equip the saints for ministry. That’s how the labor is multiplied 30 fold and 60 fold and a hundred fold, that a bountiful harvest might result.

Alda Marsh Morgan gave an interview recently about the effects of ordaining women, and she spoke with some pathos about one of the results being the devaluing of educated lay women’s vocations in the church. I don’t know the detailed history of Long Island, but the church in the West was often planted and nurtured by deaconesses and single women missionaries, and later on, church Army workers, who started Sunday schools, taught Indian children, nursed the sick, and raised the funds to build churches. And I see that this cathedral was built by a woman.

Dr. Morgan’s lament is highly accurate, and it points to the reality that as a church, we really stopped listening in one very important respect. Dr. Morgan is herself profoundly deaf, but she has heard the cry of those whose ministries have been ignored. She has spoken the truth in love.

God is still speaking, as the UCC has been saying for years. God is still speaking, but we’re not always listening on the right frequency or in the right sanctuary, and sometimes we’re just sound asleep.

God is speaking, in whispers and shouts, all around us. Kids are growing up without substantive support in school, or anybody who really cares what they do after the last bell rings. The ranting about health care this country has endured for the last couple of months is an attempt to drown out other voices crying for help and healing and hope for wholeness. I seem to remember the disciples trying to hush more than one such person, but Jesus cut through the protests and heard their voices anyway. How are the leaders in this diocese helping to give those voices a hearing?

I recall reading a wonderful vignette in Christian Century a couple of years ago, about the pastor of a church in a town where skateboarding was against the law. The kids did it anyway, and they were treated as juvenile delinquents. That pastor decided to build a skate park in the church’s backyard and discovered an abundant harvest.

This ministry we all share is supposed to be kenotic. That’s shorthand for “given away.” It’s a word that’s most often used to talk about how God was poured out, becoming human in Jesus, or in Jesus emptying his life on the cross, or in the way that Jesus lived among us, without resort to he protections of force, family, or a stable home or political position.

Roland Allen reminded us of what kenotic ministry looks like in a mission context. He worked in China in the late 1800s, and in the next several decades wrote a lot about his experience. Basically he said the job of the evangelist is to give the scriptures and the sacraments and get out of the way. Not unlike what Jesus does in this bit of Matthew we heard – send the laborers out into the harvest with good news and healing. It is what Paul did in founding communities around the Mediterranean. He kept in touch by letter, but he didn’t stick around to ensure uniformity in each community.

Roland Allen is a perpetual reminder to me that the forms we think are absolutely central are sometimes ornate decorations that prevent us from seeing the face of a lost child. And sometimes those forms are the noise that keeps us from hearing the voice in the middle of the night.

We live in an urgent time, with fields filled with abundant gifts for building up the body, and filled with desperate need for the good news and healing those gifts can offer. How can this diocese do its best listening?

I’ve been blown away by the grace of some of our departing staff – people whose positions and ministries are disappearing in this budget era. They are readying others to take over their ministry, helping to shape the going forward, and truly building up the body in love, quite literally giving away their ministry into other hands or other bodies.

I am aware of similar ministry here in this diocese, particularly as some have stood up and spoken the truth they knew, truth which was often painful to hear, truth which may have had uncomfortable consequences. As a community, you have learned something about listening to those unexpected voices, sometimes crying in the wilderness.

The work of ministry we all share is about truth telling and self-emptying. I think it is the Franciscans who speak of that work in this fourfold way: show up, pay attention, tell the truth, and leave the results to God.

As you begin this new chapter, keep showing up, even and especially in places that aren’t obviously “church.” Show up and listen deeply to the hurts and pains of a broken world. Tell the truth of what you hear and what you know – speak good news to the world’s bad news. Give thanks for the healing that is going on, and keep challenging the world around you to listen. Do your part, and leave the ultimate healing to God.