This sermon was given at the Ordination of Erik Resly at First Parish in Milton, MA, January 28, 2012
It is amazing, wonderful, a thrill to be celebrating Erik’s ordination today.
I don’t need to tell anyone here that he is a remarkable man, who has worked incredibly hard, brought spiritual depth and heart and joy to the work of theological study and the practice of pastoral skills, and done it all while spending more than his share of time in hospitals – not just as chaplain but as patient.
It is nothing short of a miracle to be celebrating this day with you, and nothing short of a blessing to be sending you forth to do the work of marking and honoring the sacred in our world.
I feel a duty to warn you, though, that I have consulted the oracle sometimes known as the internet, and the news for churches is not good these days. Reports abound, both substantiated and speculated, that the church is in decline.
Not the kind of decline that has been reported on and off for the last millennium,
but decline with a capital D, as in: Dying.
Erik, you are entering into ministry, and have trained for parish ministry in particular, in a time when more people know how to do Downward-facing Dog than have a favorite hymn. Team in Training has people raising thousands of dollars for medical research and spending months in grueling training to run marathons, while we have trouble finding people to spend 45 minutes reflecting on a story with children on Sunday morning.
In a culture where thoughts are useless if expressing them requires more than 140 characters, parish ministers spend a lot of time crafting a dynamic worship service with thematic integrity, carefully chosen music and a 2,000-word sermon.
I’m sure you knew when you started your expensive Harvard Divinity School education that ordination was available online from the Universal Life Church at the low, low price of… free. Their web site boasts that twenty million people have done this.
What is wrong with us?
To be ordained is literally to be put in an order – for Catholics the order of apostolic succession; for us the order of a body of congregations recognizing one anothers’ wisdom to identify those who are called and skilled to serve in ministry among them.
If the order into which we are being placed is dying, what does it mean – not just for those of us who have been or are preparing to be ordained, but also for those doing the ordaining?
Walter Brueggemann’s prayer (that we heard as our reading) asks the One of many names:
“Form us in freedom and wholeness and gentleness,
Reform our deformed lives toward
Obedience which is our only freedom,
Praise which is our only poetry,
And love which is our only option.
Our confidence matches our need, and so we pray…”
We know that our lives are form-able,
that freedom and wholeness and gentleness could be their shape.
We know this both in and out of church, but church is where we call ourselves back to it. Church is where, at our best, we practice the obedience, the praise, the love that can reform our lives.
If the existing form of the church is dying, it seems a bit futile to ask what is killing us – the list is long, full of pointing fingers and none of the blame is verifiable.
What we need to ask is: what is saving us?
We humans are hungry for ways to make meaning in our lives,
to know we’re okay, to know that good is possible in and through us.
We are especially hungry when we find ourselves adrift.
Some of us find our way into churches,
but we are just as likely to be the regulars at the local bar on trivia night, or sitting in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, lying in a jail cell awaiting sentencing,
in the checkout line at the grocery store, or frantically chasing children around a playground.
Neighbors in need of a good word might be sitting next to you at a Superbowl party,
cutting you off in traffic, or sleeping next to you in bed.
What has saved me, and keeps saving me as I meet the eyes of a beloved parishioner just diagnosed with cancer,
or just facing the end of a marriage,
or touching grief at the loss of a child,
or enraged with the injustice of our world,
what saves me each week as I climb the stairs to this pulpit
praying my words will be enough and knowing they aren’t,
turns out to belong very much to this order to which we ordain Erik this evening,
the order to which I was ordained 14 years ago.
It begins with the power of the Unitarian notion that as children of the same source – however we name that source – we are endowed with the capacity to grow in goodness. Jesus – prophet and teacher – showed us what it might be like
to live fully awake to that divine power born in us.
And the Universalist conviction that that same divine source is also our destination – we are equally loved and held and equally redeemed to a wholeness that we can only dream of.
We are called to live those two convictions informed by our Puritan ancestors,
in covenant together, humbled by all the ways our goodness is hampered by our brokenness, our own ability to love our neighbor never as generous or spacious as the love which gave us birth.
And in our humble gathering, committed to seeking and cultivating the good,
and to living into the love that holds us,
we catch glimpses of the world as it was meant to be.
The paradise that is already here if we tune ourselves to the grace in our midst.
This is a demanding faith.
It’s a faith that needs people to be firmly convicted, and deeply willing to live its spiritual challenge. It requires us not to live isolated in communities of self-satisfied folks convinced of our own worth, wondering why others don’t stop by to see how awesome we are, but to stand alongside those who have been told they have no worth, and show by our companionship that we are kin.
This faith doesn’t simply suggest, but requires obedience:
We have to admit we are not the ones in charge.
The good that is possible in and through each of us is greater than we can imagine.
The love that holds us even when we fall is deeper than the weight of our despair.
For a long time, we have hidden ourselves from the power of this faith by covering it with the cloak of vagueness.
We have kept ourselves at a distance from our own need, from the places where we let ourselves be saved.
We need communities of faith that are going to make it to those intimate and vulnerable places where we lay bare our needs to one another, and then let our companions bear witness to the goodness we’re afraid we don’t possess, and claim their partnership with us as siblings in spirit, and most of all, to be with us in the sacred promise of community, even when none of us is sure of our potential for goodness or of God’s love.
Once we have been to that place together, there is a new kind of confidence that emerges, an understanding we can hold deep in our bones that this faith means something real, is something real, and its message is something the world cannot be without.
Whether or not churches as we know them survive, we humans will always need a faith that can meet the real holes in our lives, the times when we desperately need to be met by a community’s fire-in-the-belly conviction that we matter,
that we are loved, and that we can be part of something good, even if we haven’t managed to be very good so far.
“Our confidence matches our need, and so we pray…”
Whatever the movement of this faith will look like in the future, we will need leaders, people who make their lives a practice of spiritual depth, intellectual commitment, and wide open hearts.
People who, whether or not the order to which we are ordained remains as it was,
are willing to publicly order our lives according to this call.
We need to show up with the comfortable and walk with them into the uncomfortable places that challenge their privilege and power.
We need to be willing to humble ourselves to all we must learn from those whose lives we cannot imagine – both the powerful and the vulnerable.
We must testify to our own journeys of faith, and return again and again to the truth of our own limits.
We will need the compassion to look kindly upon those who would like to make us their enemies, and wonder always at how the demands of love intersect with the commitment to justice.
Our job is to be the ones who hear the needs deeply and offer in response some confidence – not an arrogant confidence of unwavering belief, but the deep trust of a faith that has changed our lives. And to equip others to do the same.
We are asked to make it our sacred duty to tend the holy fire so that it is big enough to melt hardened hearts and warm those brought in from the cold, but not so big that it consumes or destroys the folks who gather around its inviting glow.
If we do it carefully, joyfully, humbly, we may see a day when the conviction of God-given goodness and love’s saving power is at least as well-known and practiced as Downward Dog.
In spite of the name of the degree we carry, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor,
“there is no mastering divinity. There is only the calling to love God and love our neighbor, and that can be done anywhere, with anyone. Ministry is not what you do but who you are.”
Erik, there is no doubt that ministry is who you are.
You join us in ordination to this faith at a time when your skills, your vision, your intellect, your spirit are needed to be part of the vibrant future that is yet to be seen.
Welcome to this order of pastors and prophets, of seekers after holy wisdom and tenders of sacred fires.
Whatever the future may bring, may we all find ourselves formed in freedom and wholeness and gentleness. May we know the truth of “obedience as our only freedom, praise as our only poetry, and love as our only option.”