Sunday, February 12, 2012

A celebration of new ministry, St Augustine's Shepparton

In the early 1980s I took a fall, went through a roof to spend a week in the hospital and three months in a metal brace and it pulled me out of graduate school and shook up my soul; made me wonder what I stood for. So several friends suggested I meet with a man who was a bit of a guru. He had started out in medical research, studied meditation and Buddhism, grown his hair out, was contemplative and kind and wise, and so I went to see him. I talked a lot. I outlined my background, talked about my troubles and the injury, shared my hopes and fears: and he finally looked at me, paused, and said, "Be a brave hero, but don't tell anybody."

It was very good advice and it was very difficult to take because, as a fourth generation Californian, I share too much; it's genetic! It you ask me, "How are you?" Then stand back, sit down, get coffee, light a cigarette, I'll tell you! So if I were going to be a brave hero, then I would have a very tough time not sharing that slogan, telling that story, over and over!  Peter Berger, the sociologist, wrote we must talk about ourselves in order to know ourselves, but I think sometime that deep need to tell the stories and share the slogans, can keep us from simply living our lives and meeting our ministry.

So I think that's why that healed leper couldn't follow Jesus' advice, why he had to tell everybody, why he couldn't rest in and live out of the simple reassurance that he had been visited by, healed by, touched by the human hand of God. Because he lived, like us, in a world where we are so often defined by what we know, what we buy into and what we can tell about; our simple stories, our popular slogans, our easy answers.

It's all around. I remember, some years ago, a very sincere minister assuring me that, if I could correctly answer the four questions contained in one small pamphlet, I would be assured of my place in heaven. Just go down the list and sign on the last page. It was better than insurance! Then several years ago I gave a homily on the mysterious ways of God and a visiting man from a small Protestant group told me that his faith taught that God's laws were simple and always easy to follow. I didn't say it, but I thought, "I'm sorry, but I've never even visited that universe!" The God I've come to know and try to follow, to be true to, is as mysterious as sunrise and death and love, as much a mysterious gift as the healing touch of a friend or stranger, is a lot like life.

But we keep settling for easy slogans, hoping for easy answers. Several years ago when I was the chaplain at RMIT University in Melbourne a young single mother dealing with deep depression came to see me. She said, "My life looks nothing like what I see on the web or at the Mall, and I don't know what's wrong with me!" What was wrong was that she was looking for easy answers when she should have been considering difficult questions. Because the easy answers, the slogans we can buy from the mall to cover our doubts and dreads, don't wear well, they aren't designed to last. She needed to look for the deeper questions that endure, nurture, and finally take us all the way home.

But we're all so used to settling for snappy slogans and proper packaging. And that's not new! Look at Naaman the Syrian, forced to wash in the local river even though he'd like a bit more flash: "I'm willing to pay the price, I just want a bigger river, a better presentation!"

And what about Paul on winning the race? I do love Paul, really,  but I think this is not one of his best moments; because that kind of heroism: taking the prize and winning the race, can lead to that peculiar piety you see on football fields, in a military campaigns and in the talk that leads up to an election campaign: all these people striving to win the prize, in ways that justify winning by any means necessary, striving to be brave heroes who tell everybody everything.

So what do we do instead?  How do we witness and work to reignite our church in a world that's fast moving in another direction, What do we do where slick slogans and quick answers are shouted at every corner?  Well, we don't stay quiet as the greatest ethical, spiritual, wisdom tradition within Western civilization moves slowly towards the sunset? And we don't let the last person standing fold the tent and turn the lights out? What we do is simply remember who we are. Because it is not what we say, it is what we do, and it's who we are!

Remember St. Francis' great one-liner, "Preach the gospel at all times, use words if necessary." What a slogan to end all slogans! That's where we go. Be a brave Christian and don't tell anybody, but follow Jesus into the middle of your life and to the crucible of your own unique ministry!

For it is in the very depths of your life and your living where the Gospel must be proclaimed: not in easy answers, sweet songs and snappy slogans, not in judgements or jargon, but in the living sermon of sharing your purpose and passion, your losses and loves, your cares and your convictions, in the great gift you have been given in being you. That's what we do, because we're not here to build another mall, we're here to proclaim a new humanity with ongoing actions of mercy, justice and love!

Diana Butler Bass, author of Christianity for the rest of us: How the neighborhood church is transforming the faith, defines ten “signposts of renewal;” actions she finds in some thriving and growing  mainstream Christian congregations. They are Hospitality, Discernment, Healing, Contemplation, Testimony, Diversity, Justice, Worship, Reflection, and Beauty. I really want to print out that list in big letters and put it on my wall. Those aren't answers, but a life-sized lifetime ministry ! That's not "take my test" or "read my creed," but follow Jesus' life of love, of self-giving, of really living! Follow the Lord into the middle of right here and right now.

That's a vision that gives me hope. For Butler Bass sees thriving congregations forming people in faith, linking a progressive vision to a new sense of spirituality and a renewed appreciation for Christian tradition. And that means "Walks for the homeless and walking the labyrinth. Living wage and a way of living the Benedictine rule. Attention to inclusive language and deep attentiveness to the Bible. Social justice and spirituality joined in an open community of practice."

That's where ministry happens, that's what the church means when it proclaims good news, not buy my book, but live my life of love.

So that brings us to this morning, to installing two people to do new ministry in this parish. I have known Grace Sharon and John Hanley (and Nettie) for awhile now, have shared meals and meetings and questions on the way and they're great people prepared to do wonderful ministry. They bring substantial gifts (which you'll see and share over time), and they can be a great asset as we as God's church, God's people, move to renew the vitality and vision of the church. But if we're talking about ministry, about the renewal of the world in light of our faith in Jesus, then this isn't just about them, it's about each of us, it's about all of us.

Let me tell you this. One of the loveliest parts of being a priest comes in the middle of the Eucharist. To walk out in front of God and everybody and say, "We are the Body of Christ", and everyone responds, "His spirit is with us." It is a pure joy, this great truth. His spirit is with us, with Grace and John and Nettie and everybody up here and everybody out there and everybody everywhere. Because, by the Grace of God, we are the body of Christ, that is the crucial piece of our identity and we share that call, that ministry, that peace that passes understanding, that brings the world alive.

So Grace, John, everybody here, this is for you. "Be a heroic Christian but don't tell anybody." Just live it out, just like St Francis: learn to look at everyone and everything with the question, “What is this to love?" Every time you spend time and money, passion and purpose; everywhere and every way you can live and give, with people you like or love or look upon or overlook, at each open opportunity to live out your life and ministry, learn to look to see, to ask, "What is this to love?" For we are the Body of Christ.

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