Sermon for the Renewal of Ordination Vows

Christ Church, New Bern, NC
April 15, 2011

We’re all going to be sent out of here at the end of this service to do the work we’ve been given to do – and I trust we will be reminded of that prayer that says, “teach us to love what you give us to do.” That sending is what mission means – to go out there and love our neighbors and help to heal God’s world. There was a formal parade of people into this place, but the less formal one as you leave at the end of the day is by far the more significant one. The sent ones, the apostoloi – that’s all of us – will go back into the field to do the kind of work Isaiah talks about – building up, preparing the way, removing the roadblocks for people on their way home. God is leading and luring everyone home, and nothing is supposed to get in the way.

Sometimes the roadblocks are the assumptions we bring to the work we share. We pay an awful lot of attention to external signs – where people sit, who wears what, and where they walk in the parade. When it gets too precious, I usually remind people that the person at the end of the parade is there to do broom and shovel work – and there seem to be a lot of elephants up ahead.

Paul is getting at something very similar. The folks in Corinth are tied up with their experience of Roman military parades, where the victorious general leads and the captives bring up the rear, to be reviled and humiliated on their way to prison or the arena. The Corinthians think their job is out front, first in line, forgetting that the victor has already gone on before us. Paul confronts that reasoning by calling himself dregs and rubbish, and a fool for the sake of Christ.

There’s another place in our liturgy where people struggle over order – just after the consecration of the bread and the wine. I’ve seen a fair number of presiders deliver communion to the faithful first, and receive last, supposing that to be the more humble position. I thought so myself, until someone pointed out that during the vast persecutions in the first few centuries of the Jesus movement, that the Roman authorities knew whom to arrest and haul off in chains because the leaders received communion first. I think that’s what’s behind the rubric that says the “ministers receive the sacrament first, and then immediately deliver it to the people.”

We’re living in a time that’s increasingly like that early church, with Roman victory parades and informants turning in Christian leaders. The persecution may not be so evident in this context, but it is in Pakistan. Christians are more often charged with blasphemy there (blasphemy against Islam), but it tends to be treated as treason, a crime against the theocratic state. Last week a man in Peshawar was arrested, supposedly for blaspheming the prophet and the Quran, but in reality because his neighbor wants to buy a house he owns. Those who take an obvious place in the parade of Christians make a powerful witness.

The saints we remember today, Damien and Marianne of Moloka’i, joined a very lonely parade to Hawaii in the second half of the 19th century. Damien is the better known – a Belgian and Roman Catholic monk who went to serve in Hawaii in 1864, primarily because his own brother was too sick to travel and take up the missionary post. A couple of years later, in 1873, Damien volunteered to work with the lepers who were confined to an isolated part of Moloka’i. He lived and ate with the people there, and helped to build houses, an orphanage, church, and hospital. He eventually contracted the disease himself, and died of it in 1889.

Marianne Cope immigrated to the US from Germany as a very young child, and then in her 20s entered a Franciscan convent in Syracuse, NY. She was originally a teacher, and then helped to start and run two of the first RC hospitals in the U.S. In 1883 she was serving as nurse administrator of St. Joseph’s hospital in Syracuse when she was asked to come to Hawai’i and care for leprosy patients. She and several of her sisters went to Oahu, and spent 5 years managing a receiving hospital, where patients were treated before being sent to Moloka’i. She met Damien and in 1888 she moved to the leper colony to run the hospital there. She started a school for girls, and continued her work with Hansen’s disease patients in Moloka’i until she died at the age of 80, in 1918.

It really doesn’t matter where we walk in the parade of the sent, or when the apostles eat, last or first. There are ways to serve that require a particular position or order, and other contexts that call for a different answer. The larger question is, how vulnerable are you willing to be? Are we willing to get down in the dirt to dig out the stones in the road that keep others from finding the way home? Those roadblocks are in Greek literally called skandaloi – if we’re going to be effective at (re)moving them, we’re likely to be dirtied by some scandal as well. Indeed, if scandal never touches us, we’re probably standing over on the side of the road, avoiding the parade. We might avoid overt scandal by staying in this lovely sanctuary, but we’ll miss the parade of saints on its way out of here, marching into the reign of God.

The parade around here is taking us out into a new way of living in the world, and a new way of being church. It’s going to require re-examining our assumptions, lest they become roadblocks preventing the hungry from eating at God’s table, or taking the road home. Today’s scandals are something like confining the lepers in an out of the way place, even if it was underlain with good intentions for public health. We’ve done the same thing by trying to wall off la otra gente (those other people) behind fortified borders of national purity or security. We’re seeing the same response in legislative attempts to build protective moats for tax privilege by taking stones from the hovels of the poor, or decimating collective bargaining.

We don’t have to go all the way to Hawai’i to find a frontier for mission. The frontier is right here – in the chicken farms, the Appalachian hollers, and out behind the big box grocery stores at night. Just who do you think of when you hear this language: a public spectacle, weak fools, disreputable, dirty, starving rubbish, dregs of humanity dressed in rags, with no visible means of support? Well, those are Paul’s words for his pack of Christian leaders. And blessings on anybody who isn’t offended!

Where are you going to look for scandal? It probably doesn’t matter where you are in the parade – if you’ve answered the call to go on out there, you’ll find plenty of scandal – up front, in the middle, and at the tail end. If you discover anyone who can now hear and see (as those roadblocks disappear), if lepers are being healed and brought back into polite society, if the old and dead are finding new life, and the poor are suddenly getting good news – join that parade – anywhere, anytime! Some of the scandal will undoubtedly rub off, but that is most certainly the royal road to the reign of God.