Generous Orthodoxy  




Friday, December 11, 2015

An Advent ordination sermon in time of national crisis

Note to readers: I believe the American body politic is in crisis, and that is the reason that I am posting this sermon directly on my blog, something I have never done before. My sermons are usually posted under Sermons. In this case I am attempting to model how preachers might bring the events of the day (and the season of Advent) into a sermon.

Letter to the World

A sermon for the Ordination of Jason Poling
to the sacred order of priests

The Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation, Baltimore, Maryland

by Fleming Rutledge                                              The Second Tuesday of Advent 2015


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Text: II Corinthians 3:2-6

How many of you out there have never been to an ordination before? (Many lay people in the congregation raised their hands.) Well, you are blessed to be here. Many church members never see a service of ordination in their whole lives, yet this is one of the most impressive occasions that the church has to offer. This is not only a great day for Jason; this is a great day for the whole Body of Christ. Not only do we gain a new Episcopal priest tonight, we gain a glimpse of what it means to be an apostolic church.

In the Nicene Creed, we say, “I believe in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” Most people probably don’t stop to think what those four words mean, and the word “apostolic” may be the least understood of the four. What does it signify?

First and foremost, the word “apostolic” refers to another Word, a word with a capital letter: the Word of God. An apostle is one who is commissioned to receive, carry, and spread forth the Word of God. The church, we affirm, is founded on the Word of God entrusted to the prophets of the Old Testament and the apostles of the New. This has always been a scandalous affirmation. I’ve never forgotten a day long ago when a much admired clergyman came to visit my husband and me. He asked me what I was studying at seminary. When I mentioned homiletics, he drew himself up to his considerable height and said, “Preaching! The Word of God! How arrogant to imagine that human beings can preach the Word of God! I would never claim to be able to do that.”

It’s amazing how long I’ve remembered that. It was a predominant attitude in the 60s and 70s. My homiletics professor, the esteemed Lutheran Edmund Steimle, said that he didn’t know why the seminary even paid his salary in the late 60s because he had so few students. Everyone was so consumed with social action that preachers lost confidence in their apostolic commission. To some extent this continues today. I’ll get back to social action later—it’s essential—but for the moment it’s the apostolic vocation that we need to define tonight. Johnny Ray Youngblood was the well-known African-American pastor (now retired) of a Brooklyn church who was celebrated for all the community action he sponsored. However, he said this about that:  “I don’t care how big a budget you have or how many social programs you’ve got going, the people want to know on Sunday morning if there’s a word from the Lord.”  Pastor Youngblood was by his own admission a very flawed human being, but he had that apostolic confidence that builds the church.

Where does such confidence come from? Is it arrogance to have confidence in one’s apostolic commission? The climactic moment of the service you are participating in tonight is the laying on of hands. The Episcopal Church has always put great store in the idea that this laying on of hands goes all the way back to Peter, the disciple of Jesus, the first Bishop of Rome. It's an idea that still gives me goosebumps every time I think of it. But the unbroken chain of hands, potent though the symbolism is, does not lie at the heart of the meaning of the word “apostolic.” For that, we need to look at the letters of the Apostle Paul.

For this sermon and this occasion, I reread the first and second letters of Paul to the church in Corinth (our ordinand Jason spent 8 months teaching I Corinthians not too long ago!). Underlying the entire Corinthian correspondence is the struggle of Paul to defend his apostleship against his opponents. In both letters, Paul is battling to defend the gospel against his opponents who say that his résumé as an apostle is deficient. They’re undermining his preaching, his person, his habits, his insufficient “spirituality,” his deficient wisdom (sophia), and his insufficient spiritual “knowledge” (gnosis). The Corinthian church thinks it has an abundance of wisdom and knowledge. This boasting in Corinth is the occasion for Paul’s famous chapter on love: “If I understand all mysteries and all knowledge (gnosis)…but have not love, I am nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2).

All the way through these long letters, Paul is fighting to establish the truth of his apostolic credentials. Unlike the Paul of Acts, the Paul of the letters never tells the story of his commissioning unless the gospel is threatened. In Corinth, he has his back against the wall. So, in the resurrection chapter of the first letter, he writes this:

For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain…it was not I, but the grace of God which is with me.                                                                     (I Corinthians 15:10)

This is the foundation of apostleship. This is the foundation on which the service of ordination rests.

But now notice something very important. Despite the power of Paul’s conviction that he had been personally seized by the living Lord Jesus, he did not simply go out and start doing apostolic ministry on his own. There’s an important autobiographical passage in Galatians where, again, Paul refers to his conversion only because he feels he has to. His opponents in Galatia were threatening to undo all his work. He therefore, with some degree of asperity, reminds this congregation that he founded,
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I would have you know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel which was preached by me is not a human gospel. For I did not receive it from human beings, nor was I taught it, but it came [directly] through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)

So after his road-to-Damascus experience, he goes on to say, he took a long (very long) trip by himself, presumably to think about what had happened to him, and only then did he go to Jerusalem to go through what is now called “a process of discernment” with the senior apostles, Peter and James. So you see, the apostolic commission, even in the “apostolic age,” even in the case of the greatest of the apostles, was never a matter of one person’s conviction of his or her call. It always had to be ratified and upheld by the church. That’s why it’s so important that all of you are here tonight, clergy and lay people alike. This is not an occasion for the glorification of Jason Poling, and Jason knows that as well as anyone. This is an occasion of solemn rejoicing for the whole body of Christ, that the Lord still calls people to the service of the apostolic ministry.

Here we are in the middle of the sermon and I haven’t even read my text yet. The text for this sermon is from Second Corinthians. This second letter, or group of letters, is painful to read, in places. Paul is as beleaguered here as we ever see him. In the letter to the Galatians, he takes a commanding position, but in Second Corinthians, he is pleading, he is throwing caution to the winds, he is trying every approach he can think of to regain the trust of the congregation that he founded, now far away and split into many factions, drifting away from the gospel into various kinds of spiritual competition. In this passage from the third chapter, Paul is trying to respond to the bragging of the “super-apostles” who have arrived in Corinth carrying imposing letters of recommendation from Christian leaders with big names. Paul begins, Do we [apostles] need letters of recommendation, as some others seem to think they do? (II  Cor. 3:1) Well [Paul says, in effect], let me tell you something about letters of recommendation:

You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.                                                         (II Corinthians 3:2-3)

Dear people of God:

You, yourselves, are God’s letter. You yourselves are “a letter of Christ.” You yourselves are a letter to the world, written not with ink, but written by the Spirit of the living God. And you have become, and are becoming, just such a letter through the message of the gospel preached by those whom God has commissioned. You are a letter to the world! Not “you should be,” you annoying Corinthians; not “you must be,” you recalcitrant congregation; not “you ought to be,” you stiff-necked people: you are—you people in the pews, no less—you are a letter written by the Spirit of Christ. This is a wonderful illustration of Paul’s teaching, often summarized as “become what you already are.”

Now. This is the season of Advent. Advent always begins in the dark. Darkness without, darkness within. This week, the terrifying event in San Bernadino has unleashed yet another spirit of darkness lurking in this beloved country of ours, a spirit of darkness heaped on top of the already present shadow of racial conflict in cities like Baltimore. From the point of view of Christian faith, the central challenge is that the Christian churches are divided, speaking messages at odds with one another. The letter to the world that we are writing is confused and confusing. We cannot seem to get our voices together. The mainline churches have lost their former place of authority in American life and often seem to be simply repeating over and over a generic, toothless message of harmony, peace, and inclusion. The so-called “Christian Right” is larger, more noisy, disdained by the mainlines, focused on sexual issues, and today more than ever seems consumed by militant political rhetoric. The Roman Catholic church has the great advantage of the magisterium, the church’s teaching office, but that permits it to some extent to stand apart from the other Christian traditions. Therefore in this time of great crisis, we are fractured and ineffective.

Advent knows all about this darkness. We pray on the first Sunday of Advent that God will give us grace “to cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armor of light.” Dear people of God, we are truly in a crisis of our national identity. What a prodigious tragedy it will be, what a sin against the Spirit of Christ, if the churches fail to speak with a single voice against the demonizing of Muslims, the targeting of refugees, the emphasis on fear and danger rather than “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln so unforgettably put it. The esteemed novelist, Marilynne Robinson, recently published an essay called, simply, “Fear.” The first sentence, surprisingly, was, “America is a Christian country.” And, she goes on, “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.” If we act out of fear, if we let loose the dogs of war because it will make us feel temporarily safer, if we once again compromise the Christian values that made secularism possible in the first place, we will surely come under the judgment of God.

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Jason Poling, will you please stand? For you, here is the second half of my text from II Corinthians:

Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant….
(II Corinthians 3:4-6)

Not that we are competent of ourselves…our competence is from God, who makes us competent. The word that the King James Version uses is a good one: “sufficiency.” The sufficiency required for apostolic ministry is from God. Jason, in talking to you during the past couple of years, I have the sense that you understand this fully. You will not be intimidated by anyone saying that mere human beings have no right to pretend that they speak for God. If there is no Word from the Lord in these days, if God has not entrusted weak, flawed men and women with his message, we might as well pack up the Christian enterprise and sink back into flailing impotence.

Jason, thanks to the far-reaching imagination of Bishop Sutton, another gift from God, we believe that you are poised on the brink of a new ministry of the Word and the sacraments. By all accounts you are particularly called, with your unusual, varied background, training, and gifts, to help build those bridges between factions in the churches that endanger the church’s public voice in these times. This is, of course, an impossible task, but “all things are possible with God.”

And now I invite all the rest of you to stand, as you are moved to do so.

To the saints gathered in Baltimore tonight:

You do not need “letters of recommendation” from any president, senator, congressman, pundit, newscaster, cultural tastemaker, investment banker, chief of staff, police commissioner, university president, or any other human agency. “You yourselves are the letter…to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us [apostolic ministers], written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” May God grant his grace and power to his church, that we will overcome our divisions in this time of testing, that we will not fail to write our letter with the spirit of Christ’s love for all humanity of every faith and of no faith at all.

And may God grant Jason Poling, and the bishops of Baltimore, and the whole people of God throughout the United States of America, the strength, the humility, and the courage to proclaim Jesus Christ as our Saviour and our Lord, in word and in deed.

Amen.