PROPERS: 5 EPIPHANY, YEAR A
TEXTS: 1 CORINTHIANS 2:1-12 (13-16); MATTHEW 5:13-20
PREACHED AT THE CLOSING EUCHARIST OF THE 190TH COUNCIL OF THE DIOCESE OF MISSISSIPPI (AT MY RETIREMENT) ON SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 5, 2017.
ONE SENTENCE: Despite our flaws and frailties, we are called to be the Salt of the Earth.
I speak to you this morning in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. AMEN.
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First of all, I want to express my profound gratitude to Bishop Seage for inviting and allowing me to preach here at my last Council as an active priest and Canon to the Ordinary.
I want, also, to thank him for allowing me to serve on his staff. I want to express that same thanks to Bishop Marble and Bishop Gray, III.
My most heartfelt thanks, though, goes to the person without whom the last 33 years -- from Sewanee to this moment – would not have been possible: My wife, Nora. She has always been herself and has been a healthy role model.
And my children, Leigh and Chris: You supported me, you loved me, and you blessed me as my children. My heart goes out to you.
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When I first entered the ordained ministry nearly 30 years ago, Nora and my then-senior warden, the late and dear Lynne Hough, would probably have agreed with St. Paul:
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.
They endured my early sermons – except Lynne’s daughter, Kellie, who was never one to hide her opinions. As I was preaching one of my first sermons at St. Patrick’s, Kellie looked at her mother and said, “Oh my God, Mama, he’s a redneck.”
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I do not claim lofty words and wisdom today. But I offer you something else.
Many years ago, I read Walter Cronkite’s autobiography. He told the story that when he first enlisted in the Army during World War II, he was asked what his religious preference was.
Walter Cronkite was apparently not very organized when it came to organized religion, so his response was both succinct and memorable: “I guess you could say I’m a jackass Episcopalian.”
My fellow clergy will recognize my invocation of that term, because I frequently refer to my own practice of jackass psychology.
Today, I want to look at the gospel and share – not lofty words and wisdom – but a bit of jackass ministry experience.
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Over the years of working with lots of congregations in this diocese, I have seen many things. I have wondered what price we are willing to pay to see our congregations become the faith communities we are called to be? What is the price – for congregations and for clergy?
Keep that question in mind, because I will come back to it. What price are we willing to pay to see our congregations and ministries prosper and flourish?
That is sometimes a difficult question, because of difficult circumstances. Being the ecclesial equivalent of a buzzard roosting on the roof, I sometimes see the underside of congregational dynamics.
On occasion, it can be distasteful.
Sometimes – though rarely, I must say – there have been issues which belonged squarely on the shoulders of the cleric. The priest had done those things which he or she ought not to have done, and not done those things he or she should have done. Graphically. Grossly. Repeatedly.
It has been those magnifying adjectives which have posed the problem. Because we all make mistakes. They become real problems when we do not learn from them and we repeat them.
A clergy colleague told me some years ago of reading a parish profile – of a congregation to which he ultimately accepted a call. The profile said, “We will overlook some mistakes by our rector.”
That is a tough approach.
That attitude betrays an expectation of perfection. Members of a congregation transfer or project onto the cleric some unresolved issue from their own lives or some unrealistic and – here’s a key word – unspoken expectation they have for the priest.
The end result is either an unhappy departure for the lay person from the congregation, or weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in the congregation.
I was told that a recent episode prompted a comment from one person: “The Rector sure didn’t help himself with that sermon.”
I was stunned by that comment. I didn’t know that the purpose of the Gospel… or that Jesus’ purpose in life… was to please us. In fact, I think he was crucified because he did not meet the crowd’s expectation of what a Messiah would be.
Lynne Hough taught me something early-on. She did it as St. Patrick’s struggled to provide the financial support for their new transitional deacon.
“Our purpose,” she told me, “is not to make sure all our needs are met, but to enable you to be a minister of the Gospel to the world around us.” Her wisdom and generosity of spirit both moved and educated me.
Church is not about a consumer experience. Neither is faith. Nor is a priest someone to meet every need, whatever it may be. Our congregations are outposts of spiritual riches. We share with others from that wealth. We do not enrich ourselves. We worship and we give because we have been blessed by our Creator and saved by our Redeemer.
Our congregations would be so much more healthy and vibrant if we recognized these truths.
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Now, to the clergy side…
I may be the doddering old uncle that everyone wants to ignore, but here is my perspective.
One development in recent years has been the professionalizing of our vocation. There is an emphasis on boundaries – which can be appropriate, healthy and helpful. But those boundaries can go beyond being healthy and helpful, and become a problem when they are fixed and impermeable. The more rigid an object is, the more brittle it is.
I speak especially of time. There is an emphasis on the work week and being certain that one does not overdo it. The standard 40-hour work-week is seen as the norm.
I have been told by a colleague in another diocese that a young priest was called by his clergy supervisor on his day off. The elder priest, already engaged, was asking the young priest to go to a local hospital to pray with a parishioner about to undergo emergency heart surgery.
“I cannot go,” the young priest said, “I have already worked my 40 hours this week.”
A short conversation ensued.
I think it is important that those of us who are blessed to wear these collars, recognize that our vocation is not a profession, it is a calling.
We are called by the same one who called to Abram in Ur of the Chaldeans. The same one who spoke to Moses from the Burning Bush. We hear the call of the one who called to Peter and Andrew by the Sea of Galilee. We hear the same voice as the one who told Mary Magdalene that the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been raised from the dead. And our call is from the same one who knocked Saul off his horse with a blinding light on the Road to Damascus.
Despite how we portray ourselves as clergy or laity, we are – every one of us – flawed, broken human beings. We are the poster people for Martin Luther’s phrase: simul justus et peccator… simultaneously justified and sinners. We may act as if we are pure and immune to sin, but in our heart of hearts, we know.
But, we are not lost. We know where to turn. We are like Peter in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
So, what are we to do? What do we do as stewards of this remarkable gift – of this pearl of great value? What is the future of the church that is populated at least partially with parishioners that rebel and project against their clergy? And what do we do about clergy that seem to be invested in minimizing the time they spend on the job? Or all of us denying our brokenness?
I am a person of hope. I was formed partially by Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. So I turn back to the gospel.
“You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world.” Jesus was looking out on a mixed multitude of Galileans on a green hillside. The common folks of that region. The great unwashed masses. People like those we see on the streets and in Wal-Marts. The Kemper County of Israel.
And he was looking out and speaking to people like you and me – not people of perfection. He was speaking to people – down through the ages and even today – who would not get the fullness of his message, who would resist unknowingly the furtherance of his reign, and would find all sorts of reasons for doing so.
And – still – he looks at us and says, “You are the salt of the earth… You are the light of the world..”
It is folks like you and me – flawed, broken, imperfect people, marked profoundly by the human condition – who are the salt and light. We will add flavor and texture to the bread of life. We will bring structure and tenacity to the bread which feeds the world. We will bring light to the dark corners of creation… to the hidden corners of human hearts.
We can do so. We can be the salt of the earth. We can be the light of the world. We can build local outposts of the good news – local outposts which flourish, blossom, and grow.
But the question recurs: At what cost? What is the price we will pay? How will it impact our comfort, our preferences, our own limitations?
Jesus answers that question in the 16th Chapter of Matthew:
Then Jesus told his disciples, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The price of following Jesus is the same. It has not changed.
My point is this: If we wish to live into being the salt of the earth and the light of the world… if we wish to be communities of transformation… we must be willing to give and give and give again. If we want to be the people and communities which are vital, lively, and change the world, we must give our all.