A bit of a preface. Three bits of homiletic advice you didn’t ask for: first, always preach on the Gospel. Second, always write a new sermon for every occasion, and even if a ten year old sermon from another seminary in another country starts to surface like a very appropriate gift for the base coat, don’t use it! And third, if you do, don’t tell anyone.
Two Quotes to start: first, the poet e.e. cummings, in a play called HIM.
"I feel only one thing, I have only one conviction ...
I am an Artist, I am a Human, I am a Failure
and always I am repeating a simple and dark and little formula...
always myself mutters and remutters ... I breathe and I whisper:
"An Artist, a Human, a Failure, must proceed."
Then, in the Gospel of John, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
So I want to talk about art, humanity, Jesus, discipleship, failure, and thanksgiving as an aid to walk the way, tell the truth and live life fully.
Jesus is certainly the ultimate artist, if you look at the work and the words of the man in the gospels you see a tapestry that combines radical obedience and complete freedom. Jesus paints with all his pallet, uses all the words, makes paintings and poems in languages we never thought of before, using every color and combination, text and context, sight and sound, melody and mood to make a point. In all his teachings and actions he artfully lights up the glory of a human being fully alive and in love with creation and God.
He is fully human and, in that, somewhat of a failure too. Look at his life and ministry. He has family difficulties, and certainly a less than perfect track record on choosing disciples and friends. Often misunderstood, he clashes with the religious and political establishment of his time. He would not have done well in most seminaries or ordination processes in most dioceses. There are moments in his ministry when he must feel he is in the middle of a maelstrom of fear, anger and frustration. When he gets to the top of the mountain he is alone, feels forsaken, and cries out to God as the curtain slowly falls. And that is the model for us here. For he moves in faith all the way through failure into something else that we can’t quite get a handle on. Something else that just might be handling us.
Now I always hoped that having faith would make the road of life easier, that my life as a Christian would make me healthier, more able to follow the pilgrim way with flexibility and grace,; sort of a spiritual Pilate’s class, and in the long run I think it does. But there are tough times in the process, especially in seminary as well as in professional ministry, where life is not easy, where breakdowns, occur as well as breakthroughs. At least if we do it right. And that hurts.
Because, for most of us, answering a call, coming to seminary meant taking ourselves more seriously than ever before. To say, "I believe that God is asking me to serve in a new and professional way," stretches us out, feels a bit surrealistic, can be hard to share. So even if it is right, it is never easy. Personally I wish that the call to the spiritual life had certain technological adaptations: like Call Waiting and Call Forwarding. Maybe a preview application, so that when you got a call, you could see if you wanted to open it now you now or after lunch: maybe years after lunch!
But you take the call, getting encouraged, for the most part, from friends and family, cohorts and compatriots, and as you follow the new life of service to God you find yourself stretched beyond capacity. In my experience of ministry and church, this seems sometimes inevitable! I am sorry, but you’re likely to crash and burn somewhere in the process. It goes with the territory. If you haven’t been hurt yet, you will be.
If you haven’t had a vestry or a commission or council or congregant or a friend or an ecclesiastical enemy betray you; if you haven’t been stymied by the demands of a syllabus or a final paper or a partner, hang around, there’s always tomorrow, everybody has a good Friday someday.
This is not to say that it is always for the best, Thomas Merton says, just because it’s a cross, it doesn’t mean it’s a cross for you now! And the church can be dysfunctional at times, even sadistic, we don’t do power real well. So don’t take all the crucifixions that come, but do take the ones that come seriously for it seems to be part of the package:
Ministry is an uphill ride. And the question is how do we take it, where do we go with it? Ephesians says, “With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." And it may take a bit of a miracle to understand that sometimes. For the old words mean different things on the different sides of the cross. The justice we find is made perfect in mercy the prudence we practice comes in letting go of who we think we are and what we believe we will do. The strength comes when all our life is given wholly to God as an offering. The way and the truth and the life happen in the midst of detours and falsehoods and dead-ends, and in the cacaphony of major contradictions.
That is why you’re here. It is part of the package. Why you are painting with more colors, using wider words, stretching for life that stretches you beyond ease, so that God can take more place in your life and your ministry. So that God can speak bigger words through you and so God can grow more gracefully in the lives of other people. We are here to become a new language, Christ being the model for the keynote address as well as the corner-stone; And it hurts, for this language is built on the history that we bring to God and the history that God brings to us - and by gut-wrenching grace they may be the same - which leads to making us painfully part of the alphabet of glory, leading us to be love letters from God posted in peculiar places. Because God says something specific and unique in the lives of each of us.
And I think that this depends upon our failure at some specific point. So that God can succeed in some new way we could never envision. That is where Christ’s baptism, teaching, healing, crucifixion meets ours and changes it into resurrection and eternal priesthood.
People in Alcoholics Anonymous say the easiest way to make God laugh is to explain your plans, and over the years I think this chapel has probably made God rock! So today, right now, please, surrender the ideas of both success and failure. Give them all up, then take up the care and ministration of God which comes as a gift, take it all up and make Thanksgiving!
Listen: we join in the Eucharistic banquet because we are the Eucharistic banquet! The feast of shared love we recollect today is built by God’s grace in the broken flesh and spilled blood of our own incomplete lives and unfinished journeys. All washed clean in the font of Christ’s love. And it is up to us to finally learn that the way to pass the test and get past the temptations and the pain is to simply ascent to be lost in the heart of the journey. This is tough news for those of us who are trying to make a judgment call about what it means and where we are going, but know this: God is hidden, waiting to be discovered, in both the pain and the glory, in the good times and bad, failure and fullness; waiting to be discovered as the way and the truth and the life, right here and right now in the middle of it all.