Team Ministry Ordination in Westernport, Maryland

St. James Episcopal Church
June 29, 2008

[Vamos a platicar sobre la geografía espiritual. La geografía exterior o física, influye a nuestro entendimiento de la relaciones entre Dios y nosotros.]

I had a very interesting conversation a couple of nights ago about spiritual geography. Your new bishop made the observation that the new seal of the diocese reflects the fact that this diocese encompasses mountains, forests, and the sea. Someone else in the conversation pointed to Jesus’ experience in desert and sea, and how the geography of the Middle East has influenced the spirituality of our Judaeo-Christian tradition. Think about it for a minute – Moses and the slaves fleeing Pharaoh pass through the Red Sea and then spend 40 years wandering in the desert wilderness. That wandering in the wilderness was Israel’s opportunity to shape an identity as a people; it’s where they received the law, the 10 commandments, as a basic description of what it means to be in relationship to God. Jesus goes to the wilderness right after he’s baptized. He goes to the mountaintop and is transfigured. H journeys with the disciples on a stormy sea. All of these encounters have something to do with how they begin to understand who Jesus is.

How has your experience of geography shaped your understanding of God? Have you discovered something about the otherness of God by spending time in the wilderness? Have you spent enough time on the ocean to begin to feel how small a human being really is? What does going to the mountaintop mean spiritually, when you’ve experienced the physical effort it takes to climb to the top?

There is some spiritual geography in the lessons today, and it starts with that reading about Isaiah’s vision of the temple: “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty.” The prophet goes on to talk about his own experience in contrast to that high and lifted up throne of God. Isaiah is most definitely not one who starts out high and lofty – he’s unclean, unworthy, lowly. But when the prophet begins to understand his call to go and serve – when he discovers that God has need of him, he has an experience of being lifted up, and he gets up and says, “send me.” Being sent means journeying into an unknown land, going into dangerous or scary territory – just as much for us as it was for Isaiah.

There is another encounter with spiritual geography at the end of that reading. The prophet’s pronouncement of judgment says that God is going to turn those great cities into wastelands, into wilderness, if they don’t remember their vocation of justice-making. The wilderness has something to do with an inability to see God at work, and the peaceful city says that the people remember who is Lord and who is King, and live their lives accordingly, in peace with their neighbors.

Spiritual geography is important, because most of us live with the fiction that God is up there, and we are down here, and there is a vast chasm between. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are meant to give the lie to that misunderstanding. Jesus reminds his disciples that the kingdom of God is around us, and among us, and within us – in other words, God is at work right here, even and maybe especially when we don’t notice. And the charge in the gospel, about being friends that bear fruit, is meant to show the people around us that the image and work of God is here in our midst.

So, the basic spiritual geography question is whether our work as image of God looks like high and lofty or down and dirty. And our work here this morning is about just that. We’re ordaining two priests, and commissioning this microcosm of the Body of Christ as leaders in this place, out of a sense that their work – and ours – is much more about down and dirty than high and lofty.

That’s what laying down your life is about, and it’s what Peter’s letter means by humility. That word humility comes from the same root as humus – dirt, good organic fertilizer dirt – and it’s got the same root as the word human. We are earth creatures, and living into the fullness of our humanity means being well-grounded, well connected to that source of our humanity. If we are going to be friends of Jesus, we are going to have to get down off any sense of high and lofty entitlement.

We might define ministry as the lowly work of friendship to the earthiest among us. That word ministry has its roots in “minus” and it means getting out of our own way, laying down our lives in order to find them. This team is not being raised up, they are being invited down to connect with the earth out of which all of us are created, to be examples and icons for the rest of us, of what minus ministry looks like. It hasn’t got much to do with being in charge. It does have to do with being on call – being available, and vulnerable, and willing to get out of the way so that others can try out their own ministries. One of the hardest things for this team (and most of those who lead in the church) to learn will probably be that all they have learned in this process is meant to be for the building up of those around them. When people come and ask you for an answer, your task is not so much to supply an answer as to help the questioner to find his or her own answer. You will be asked repeatedly (if you are able to hear the quiet requests) to step aside and let another try, even though she or he may not do it as well as you could. You are being invited into this ministry to sit down on the ground with the most dejected, to be companion and accompanier, rather than understand your work as rescuer.

The very fact that you are being commissioned and installed as a team means that you already have some experience of the challenge involved in working together. There is no ruler here – that is what rector actually means – but there is a team of leaders here, whose work is to develop other leaders.

You might think of your vocation as community organizing. The role of this team is to gather the community, to motivate, equip, and support its members, to go out there and transform the world into something that looks more like the reign of God. Community organizing means you start with the members of the community, of which you are also members. It is not work that is done from the top down. It is the work of listening carefully to the joy and lament of the community, hearing the voice of the spirit at work, and then playing that back to the members. It is humble work that, done well, can change the world. It’s the kind of work you’ve been doing here – listening to the idioma de los angeles y el hambre por comunidad aqui en Westernport. Mantenga sus orillas abierto, y Dios podría cambiar este comunidad poco a poco hasta el reino de Dios.

[Listening to the language of the angels, and the hunger for community here in Westernport. Keep your ears open, and God will change this community, bit by bit, into the kingdom of God.]